Spain’s Northern Regions Keep It Cool
BY JOSH RAYNOLDS | MARCH 28, 2019
Spain’s northern, Atlantic Ocean–influenced winegrowing
zones were virtually unknown to most wine lovers only a decade ago, but things
have changed dramatically. Some of Spain’s most sought-after, high-quality and
highly allocated red wines come from Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, and the
popularity of the area’s racy whites, especially those of Rías Baixas, which
are usually exclusively made with the local Albariño variety, continues a steep
This was hardly the case just a decade ago, when these wines
were seldom encountered outside the region, except in forward-thinking restaurants
scattered across Spain. Today, collectors are chasing down small-production,
Mencía-based Bierzos and Ribeira Sacras with the zeal of Burgundy aficionados,
and Galician white wines have established a strong and growing foothold in
stores and, especially, restaurants around the world that feature seafood- and
vegetable-based menus. There has also been an uptick of interest for the less commonly
encountered white and red wines of Ribeiro, Monterrei and Valdeorras, many of
which are proving to be outstanding and, for the time being at least, mostly terrific
values as well.
Albariño vines in Rías Baixas are traditionally grown on the traditional, overhead pergola system, the better to combat the region's often humid conditions.
Let There Be Light
Most of the wines here, red as well as white, tend to be
made with a light hand, meaning that they are not too extracted and on the
low-alcohol side, displaying bright acidity and, usually, minimal oak
influence. The vast majority of white wines are raised entirely in stainless
steel and/or concrete tanks, and, when oak comes into play, it’s usually in the
form of large, neutral vats or barrels, for reds as well as whites. Given the
cool conditions that dominate the area, acidity levels tend to be on the high
side and pHs are, as a rule, low, meaning that the general style of all the
wines is lively and mineral-driven, the white wines showcasing citrus fruit and
floral qualities and the red wines showing red rather than dark fruit character
coupled with spiciness and florality. Fans of Pinot Noir, Gamay, Dolcetto and
Loire Valley Cabernet Franc will find a lot to like from the red wines here, as
will white wine aficionados who favor Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and
cool-climate Chardonnays such as Chablis. Restraint, elegance and precision,
far more often than not, are the bywords.
Bierzo's terrain ranges from the flat plains of Bajo Bierzo to the mountainous Alto Bierzo, allowing for a wide range of wine styles, from brawny to elegant.
Two thousand seventeen was a mixed vintage weather-wise,
as was the case across Europe. Severe spring frosts hit Valdeorras and
Monterrei especially hard, resulting in low – often dramatically low – crop
yields. Rias Baixas, by contrast, was spared the frost, and while a few spots
suffered from a summer drought, yields were solid and even on the high side for
most producers. The resulting wines generally show their typical liveliness and
clarity. Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra experienced early ripening on an epic scale,
such that the Mencía, in many cases, was ready to pick at the end of August, a
full three weeks ahead of its normal schedule. This accelerated ripening shows
in the richness of many wines, which often come off as a bit less energetic
than one might typically expect. On the eastern end of Spain’s northern coast, in
Navarra and the Txakolina zones, there were spring hailstorms that,
predictably, curtailed yields, but the fruit that made it through was healthy, while
sugar and acidity levels were normal. Old-vines Garnacha in Navarra was
especially successful, so these will be wines to look for.
It was a similar mixed bag in 2016, when parts of Bierzo
and especially Ribeira Sacra, were hit by hail in August, resulting in often
massive losses of nearly ripe fruit, just as harvest was nearing. In the far
northwest, in Rías Baixas and Ribeiro, mildew was a problem in a number of
vineyards during flowering, but a dry summer helped produce healthy, ripe fruit
that had slightly lower acidity than normal, meaning that a number of wines,
while still lively, show more body and less citrus fruit and mineral character
than usual. Navarra and the Txakolenjoyed extremely high yields of healthy
fruit. The only caveat I would offer here is that some producers whose eyes are
trained more on quantity than quality didn’t drop enough fruit, if any, and wines
come off dilute or lacking structure. Fortunately, these aren’t the sort of
bodegas aren’t the focus of our coverage at Vinous.
Ribeira Sacra's incredibly steep vineyards yield some of Spain's most elegant and complex red wines.
Obscure Varieties Are
Slowly Gaining Traction
While many attentive and curious wine lovers have become
familiar with Galicia and León’s dominant Albariño and Mencía varieties over
the last decade, most of the other native grapes of the region continue to toil
away in relative obscurity. But that seems to be changing, judging by the
increase of availability and sales of wines that feature the white Godello and
Treixadura varieties. Godello, in particular, is held in high regard by
producers in the region for its ability to make wines that combine depth and
energy as well as complex bouquets that showcase often-exotic floral character.
The wines typically age gracefully as well.
There has also been increased action for the red Caiño Tinto,
Sousón, Brancellao and Louriera varieties, but their plantings pale when
compared to the white grapes. Some of the area’s most intriguing wines, in my
view, are the still-rare examples of red Rías Baixas, which show distinct
raciness, powerful minerality and spiciness and are usually made from some combination
of those obscure red grapes.
Terraced vineyards in Valdeorras, overlooking the river Sil. Today, this relatively obscure zone is emerging as one of Spain's most exciting growing regions.
There’s a checkered history of quality in Navarra that
continues to keep the region under many wine buyers’ radar. That’s unfortunate,
as quality has been rising over the last decade. I suspect that a big reason
for the market’s coolness toward Navarra is the fact that producers pretty much
went all in for planting international varieties in the 1980s, and the results
were often lackluster, at best. The finest producers, though, are making wines
from the native Tempranillo and Garnacha that compare very favorably to those
from neighboring Rioja, often at extremely reasonable prices.
The small, inland Monterrei region is home to numerous old Mencía bush vines.
These vibrant, low-alcohol, light-bodied wines, which are
usually made from the local Hondarrabi Zuri grape (which represents some 95% of
the plantings in the prime Getariako Txakolina zone), are extremely easy to
drink but, with rare exception, they make questionable cellar candidates. In
fact, it’s the rare Txakoli that benefits from any aging at all, in my
experience. While many Txakolis are quite well-made, their popularity in the
early 2010s caused pricing to begin accelerating to the point where many buyers
began balking. Indeed, in a number of cases, the wines are priced higher at
retail in export markets than many white Riojas that typically show more
complexity and don’t require drinking before their second or even first
birthday. That said, I can’t think of a better match for raw oysters, clams,
sashimi or sushi (especially mackerel) than ice-cold Txakoli. I enjoy indulging
in these pairings as often as possible.
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