Tasting No 237 – February 1st, 2022 – Wines from Galicia, Spain
The objective of this tasting is to explore the wines from Galicia, one of the wine regions in Spain. The Galician wine region is situated in the northwest corner of Spain, bordering with the north of Portugal.
There are 5 ‘Denominaciones de Origen Protegidas’ or DOP: Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra, Rías Baixas, Ribeiro, and Valdeorras, with the most well-known being DOP Rías Baixas, famous for its white wines produced from the Albariño grape varietal. We will taste two white and two red wines from the two main DOP in Galicia: Rias Baixas and Ribeira Sacra.
Type of tasting: Open
Presenters: John Brooks, with Ginger Smart and Ruth Connolly
- 2020 Atalier by Raul Perez Albariño,
- 2018 Do Ferreiro Cephas Velhas Albariño
- 2020 Guimaro Vino Tinto
- 2017 Dominio do Bibei Lalama
- Sautéed Calamari with a light sauce
- Prawns sautéed in a garlic herb oil over a small amount of pasta
- Roasted lamb accented with black peppercorns with roasted potatoes
Ruth Connolly, Clara Estrada, Michelle Fryer, Jorge Garcia-Garcia, Agilson Perazza, Claudia Perazza, John Redwood, Lucia Redwood, Jairo Sanchez, Ricardo Santiago, Ginger Smart, Gabriela Vega (invited guest)
The Albariños from Rias Baixas
The two whites are 100% Albariño grapes from the Rias Baixas DOP. Rias Baixas is an ancient wine region on the coast—in fact the name itself translates to estuary. Originally, a relatively wide variety of grapes were planted in the region (a dozen). But, over time, most have been pulled up and replaced by Albariño—which now makes up over 90% of production in the DOP. Albariño is native to Galicia and its wines are crisp but often well-textured with peach, citrus and mineral characters that pair perfectly with the local seafood.
2020 Raúl Pérez Atalier ‘a cruz das ánimas’, Rías Baixas Albariño
The Atalier is a joint endeavor between Raul Perez – the famous rock star winemaker in northwestern Spain – and his longtime friend, Rodri Méndez of Rias Baixas DOP. The wine comes from the Val do Salnés sub-region within the DOP, where Albariño has always been the principal grape. The sub-region’s sandy soils mean that vines there were resistant to the Phylloxera that ravaged most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century. The result is that there are some very old vines in Val do Salnés. In any given vintage, Atelier comes from either two or three of such vineyards (one managed by Rodri and the others managed by his friends).
The 2020 vintage comes in at 13.0% abv and offers explosive aromatics with stone fruit flavors, hints of salinity and sea breeze, plus savory notes—all on a solid acidic frame. The 2020 was rated 94 points by Decanter—England’s leading wine publication. The wine was procured locally at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean.
Rodri Méndez is the proprietor of the Forjas del Solnés estate. The name Forjas, or “Forge,” was chosen to honor his grandfather, one of the pioneers of the Albariño varietal. His venture partner, Raul Perez, takes several slightly different approaches to his winemaking with Albariño than most. First, he picks later than perhaps any other winemakers in the region. Most pick as soon as the sugars rise, to maximize freshness. But because the wines have strong malic acids, the wines are put through full or partial malolactic fermentation (known colloquially as ML). Perez approach is instead to wait to harvest when malic acid levels begin to drop. Then, the ML is blocked during fermentation. Some might worry that such an approach could lead to overripe grapes and high alcohol wines (because of high sugars). Nonetheless, his Albariño wines have run 12.8 to 13.0% abv and maintain freshness (abv = alcohol by volume).
Also, most winemakers age their Albariño wines in stainless steel tanks, again to preserve freshness. However, Perez ages his Albariño in barrel, because he believes that the wines have sufficient freshness and that the micro-oxygenation from barrel aging helps produce a rounder, more complex wine.
2018 Bodegas Gerardo Méndez, Albariño Do Ferreiro ‘Cepas Vellas’
During many vintages—perhaps most—the grapes from this very old vineyard are processed with grapes from their other old vineyards in their primary wine released as Do Ferreiro Albariño. But in exceptional vintages, those grapes are processed and bottled separately—a very limited production known as Albariño Do Ferreiro ‘Cepas Vellas’ (Old Vines). The wines are exceptional.
The 2018 is considered one of the greatest ‘Cepas Vellas’ vintages of ever. It rings in at a slightly higher abv than the Atelier (13.5 v. 13.0). Again, the nose is explosive. On the palate, one critic said the wine feels “electric”—with amazing depth and complexity and racy acidity. Flavors include meyer lemon, nectarine and other orchard fruits plus waves of savory and mineral notes. The 2017 was rated 96 points by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Our wine was sourced from New York. The regular Do Ferreiro bottling is available at MacArthur Beverages in DC, but they do not currently have Cepas Vellas).
Rodri’s grandfather used the name Do Ferreiro for his own winery, now run by his uncle Gerardo Méndez. Do Ferreiro is generally considered the world’s best Albariño producer. While Atalier does indeed source from pre-phylloxera vineyards, which may be approaching 200 years old, Do Ferreiro owns a ~3-acre vineyard believed to be planted in ~1785— which may well be the world’s oldest vines. Old, well cared for vines can produce intense, complex wines—though in very limited quantities (production output is small because the energy of the vines is concentrated in a tiny number of grapes).
Do Ferreiro is very much a family operation, with most of the work done by Gerardo, his daughter Encarna, and son, Manuel. The winery is co-located with their home on a lovely slope overlooking the coast. Unlike Perez, Méndez picks in the normal window, employs partial ML and ages in stainless steel, the more mainstream approach. That aging does include extended time on the lees (or dead yeast cells) for added complexity. Méndez counts on great grapes and clean winemaking techniques to make his wines stand out.
The reds of Ribeira Sacra
The two reds are either 100% or 90% Mencia varietal from Ribeira Sacra DOP, which is located about 100 km inland. The area is better known for its red wines than whites, though both are produced. The most prominent are the dry red wines, mostly using the Mencia grape native to northwest Spain. It produces a medium-weight wine with solid fruit and acidity and medium tannins—perhaps closest to pinot noir among the more familiar grapes.
2020 Guímaro Mencia Vino Tinto, Ribeira Sacra
The 2020 Guímaro Vino Tinto is 100% Mencia from Ribeira Sacra DOC. The grapes all come from family-owned vineyards terraced into 50-to-70-degree slopes. It has intense aromas of red and dark fruit with notes of florals, herbs and balsamic and good acidity and silky tannins. It was aged in stainless steel to emphasize the freshness and fruit. Alcohol is moderate at 13.5%. It was rated 91 points. Sourced from Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean and also available at shops in DC.
The family of the Guímaro owner Pedro Rodriguez has been farming in the hills of Ribeira Sacra for many generations—crops and livestock as well as vines. Most of the wine production was sold off in quantity, though a small amount was bottled and sold locally. As the estate bottling grew more prominent and needed a name, it was called Guímaro, or “Rebel”, a nickname of Pedro’s grandfather. In the early 2000s, Pedro was introduced to Raul Perez who helped him see the potential in his old vine vineyards—particularly the Mencia. Perez mentored him on techniques both in the vineyard and in the winery to improve quality, from reducing yields in over-cropped vineyards and eliminating chemical treatments to pigeage (traditional foot-treading), fermentation with native yeasts, minimizing sulfur treatments and the use of neutral barrels. The result has been expressive, age-worthy wines. While his winery may be an emerging star, it is still very much a family operation with Pedro doing much of the work himself.
2017 Dominio do Bibei ‘Lalama’, Ribeira Sacra
The 2017 Dominio do Bibei Lalama is 90% Mencia with 7% Brancellao and traces of Garnacha and Mouraton. It was aged for 12 months in oak barrels of different sizes—primarily neutral, though it tastes like there’s a bit of new. The 2017 rings in at 14.0% abv so it may seem a tad fuller than the Guímaro. The 2017 was an excellent vintage for Lalama—in fact Decanter magazine selected it as one of their Wines of the Year for 2021. Aromas jump from the glass, with red and black fruit, herbs and peppery elements. The fruits show again on the palate, with savory notes that emerge on the long finish. Decanter scored it 94 points.
Dominio do Bibei is a project founded high in the hills of Ribeira Sacra in 2000 by a team headed by Javier Dominguez, incorporating vines that are up to 100 years old. Dominguez also gets expert advice from Raul Perez. In the beginning, Dominguez was also aided by Sara Perez (no relation to Raul) and René Barbier—who lead legendary wineries in Priorat. Unlike our other three Galician wineries, which are relatively small and largely family operations, Bibei is a little larger and relatively well-funded. The estate consists of approximately 125 acres, of which about 45 are planted to vines.
The winery, which sits at the top of the steeply sloping vineyard, is stunning in its simplicity. It’s a five-level gravity flow facility built into the side of the hill—to minimize disruption of the magnificent vistas. That same respect for nature and history causes Dominguez to employ traditional methods of winemaking—for example, you won’t find any stainless-steel tanks here. Dominio do Bibei produces a white, made from Godello, and a variety of reds, made primarily from Mencia with dashs of other grapes. They are also experimenting with Albariño, using cuttings from the vines at Do Ferreiro, with small amounts of it blended into their Godello.
Galicia is in the far northwestern corner of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and north (technically the Cantabrian Sea to the north, which opens to the Atlantic), Portugal to the south and Asturias, Castile and León to the east.
Galicia’s rich history includes periods in which it was part of the Roman Empire, the Visigoth reign, the Islamic Caliphate and the Kingdoms of Asturias, León and—for a considerable period—Castile. It has at times, been independent and, at other times, autonomous. At the end of the Franco dictatorship, it again became an autonomous self-governing community within Spain, with its own president and parliament.
Galicia is a dual-language community, with both Spanish and Galician recognized. Galician is a romance-based language perhaps closer to Portuguese than Spanish…suggesting at least some historical cultural alignment with the Portuguese.
During the 14th century, Galicia exported vine cuttings to other European wineries eager to try out their indigenous grapes. When the 19th century arrived, the whole Galician region sank into an economic depression, further deteriorated by the emigration of many local people to South America and other richer areas within Spain and Europe.
The climate in Galicia is significantly maritime influenced, with wet weather in the fall, winter and spring and temperatures moderated by the ocean. Summers are generally warm and dry. But as you move toward eastern Galicia, the climate begins to shift from maritime to continental, with bigger temperature swings and somewhat drier weather (though definitely not dry). The coastal region is relatively flat, dominated by estuaries and beaches. The interior is rugged, with mountains and breath-taking river valleys.
Rias Baixas DOP: like in many wine regions all over Europe, it is believed that vineyards have been first planted there by the Cistercian monks—close to 1000 years ago. For all intents and purposes, Rias Baixas has become synonymous with Albariño. As the grape began to achieve acclaim about 50 years ago, most Albariño vines in the broader Rias Baixas DOP are ~35-50 years old.
Ampelographers have not reached consensus on the origin of the Albariño grape. Some suggest it is indigenous to the region. Some believe it is French in origin. Still others suggest it might be Germanic. Indeed, looking at the name, it could be broken down into “alba” = white and “rin” = Rhine. But whatever the roots, it produces a juicy, fresh white wine with both strong fruit flavors and solid acidity.
Rias Baixas is a maritime-dominated climate with both significant off-season rain and sea fog. Grape production is made possible by the relatively dry, warm summers which generally last through harvest (the same phenomenon that makes places like Oregon and Bordeaux viable for wine). Because of the moisture, the vines have traditionally been trained overhead on pergolas as opposed to the more common two- and three-wire trellis training above the ground. Some growers continue to use pergolas today.
There are five sub-zones in the Rias Baixas DOP, but they’re relatively obscure and not particularly relevant to us. The Val do Salnés sub-zone is the ancestral home of Albariño in the region and the source of both our white wines for this event.
In contrast, the Ribeira Sacra DOP is located in a very different topography, beginning perhaps ~100 km inland. The area is heavily forested and mountainous, with steep slopes leading down to narrow river valleys—perhaps reminiscent of the Mosel Valley in Germany (but maybe even more lovely!).
Just as the topography is different, so is the climate, trending more toward continental, with long, hot summers and relatively cold winters. Rainfall is a little higher than most continental climates—but again, the rainfall is largely confined to winter.
The origin of wine in the region is believed to date back ~1000 years to monks traveling to the region, likely on pilgrimage. By the 12th century, they had established around 18 monasteries and hermitages in the area – thus the name Ribeira Sacra (Sacred Shore or Riverside).
Technically, 14 varieties are authorized to be produced in Ribeira Sacra. The primary white grape in the region is Godello, which has not reached the level of prominence of Albariño from western Galicia.
Among the red wine grapes, Mencia takes the primary role, sometimes as varietal, sometimes blended with more obscure grapes. The variety thrives in this climate, benefiting from the long ripening season and the marked temperature variability. The Mencia grape, with its somewhat thick-skinned, violet-blue grapes, for a time was thought to be descended from Cabernet Franc, but that has been disproven through modern DNA testing. It was probably indigenous to Bierzo (northwest Castilla y Leon) and exported to Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras and to northern Portugal (where it is known as Jaen). Those are the only places in the world where it is grown in quantity. Mencia likely emigrated across the border with the monks from the Bierzo region. It produces a medium-weight wine with solid fruit and acidity and medium tannins—perhaps closest to Pinot Noir among the more familiar grapes.
Because of Ribeira Sacra’s extraordinarily steep slopes, the vines are virtually all planted on terraces cut into the hillsides, with most trained on standard trellis systems.
Historically, farmers aimed to maximize vineyard production, resulting in wines that were fragrant but generally pale and light. In recent years, the renaissance—led by Perez—has reduced over-production, resulting in wines with medium weight, solid dark fruit flavors, spicy, earthy notes and good acidity. Guímaro’s owner Pedro Rodriguez is capitalizing on that movement—combining his old vines with good winemaking.
John Brooks is a retired Air Force major general. During his 29-year Air Force career, he had the honor to command seven times—at levels ranging from a flying squadron to a joint task force. Once retired from the Air Force, he spent 12 years with Northrop Grumman Aerospace, serving as vice president for international and president of the international subsidiary.
Following retirement from Northrop, he followed his passion into wine becoming a wine educator and consultant. He studied with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, achieving Advanced Certification—awarded with Distinction. He also gained hands-on experience, working one harvest cycle and part of another as an intern at a winery in Napa. He teaches classes, leads several tasting groups and plans and leads trips to wine regions. But he only does these things with friends and people he likes—and only on subjects and regions that interest him. In return for the privilege of doing it his way, he provides his services gratis—declining compensation. This is a passion, not a profession, for him.