Rías Baixas: Where the Land Meets the Sea
This feature continues our exploration of Northwest Spain from our last issue. We move from the transitional zone of Bierzo, through the interior of green Spain, finally arriving at the craggy coastline of Galicia. Northwestern Spain has emerged from obscurity in the past decade to finally claim its place alongside other great wine regions known for their equal diversity of both food and wine. Parallels exist with France’s Loire Valley, Piemonte in Italy, and the Pacific Northwest of the US. Like these other famous areas, Galicia has not only a bounty of indigenous grape varieties to explore but an unparalleled gastronomic tradition. Galicia is one of the most incredibly rich and rewarding places to explore food, wine, and culture. Nothing short of a complete revolution in the vineyards is well underway, which has been built on the pioneering work done by legends like Gerardo Méndez of Do Ferreiro and Emilio Rojo in Ribeiro (which we will cover in part 3 of this series).
A Deep History
The known history of the region begins with Finis Terrae, which was a pilgrimage route through Galicia following the Milky Way all the way to Fisterra (Finis Terrae), which in Roman times was believed to be the end of the known world; a magical place where the living could get closest to the land of the dead. The Artabri is the first known ancient Gallaecian Celtic tribe that once inhabited the area. They were followed by Phoenicians, Romans, and finally the Christian settlers from France who established the monasteries and religious orders which came to dominate the agricultural and economic landscape of Galicia.
Before the 18th century, everything belonged to the monasteries until an extended economic and social process of selling the lands and property of the religious orders to private individuals resulted in the distribution of tiny parcels of land to many owners. This process is significant, as it explains the current landscape where the average vineyard in the region is 0.4 hectare. After the Phylloxera epidemic, hybrid and high yielding grapes such as palomino were planted for weight. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s that the first generation of quality growers began replanting with indigenous grapes like albariño, loureiro, godello, treixadura, caiño tinto, espadeiro, loureiro tinto, and souson; reclaiming the identity of the region.
Primarily made up of a patchwork of micro-plots of vines, typical of Galicia, Rías Baixas currently covers a surface area of 4,061 hectares (10,030 acres), divided up into more than 21,825 plots of vines. It is interesting to note that in 1987 there were 500 growers and 14 original bodegas farming 240ha of vines. Today more than 4200 growers and 200+ Bodegas, farm 1,900ha of vineyards. Not only did planting increase, but yields also went up as well.
The name Rías Baixas, with a ría being similar to a fjord, translates to "lower fjords." Rías Baixas makes up the lower rías facing the Atlantic bordered by the Miño River to the south, which forms a natural boundary with Portugal. The lesser-known (in wine circles) is the Rías Altas (upper rías), facing the Cantabrian Sea to the North. The rías create an estuary where fresh water from the inland rivers meets the salty water of the Atlantic Ocean. This environment provides an ideal home for the diversity of marine life found in the cuisine of the area. The 5 rías are, from north to south: Ría de Corcubión, Ría de Muros e Noia, Ría de Arousa, Ría de Pontevedra, and Ría de Vigo.
The Gastronomic Riches of Rías Baixas
It is impossible to speak of the wines of this region without talking about the food in tandem. One does not exist without the other here, or anywhere in Spain for that matter. Vigo is one of Spain’s largest ports and here fishing is the economic engine which drives the region. Here you will find fishers with shovels digging for clams and harvesting mussels from the platforms which dot the estuaries or Rías. You will also find world-famous canning facilities producing conservas: everything from razor clams to baby squid, bluefin tuna, mussels, clams, and sardines are expertly preserved in tins to be eaten in the finest restaurants in Spain and transported all over the world. Octopus (pulpo a la Gallega) is practically a religion, sea urchin, percebes (incredibly delicious and rare gooseneck barnacles), brilliant orange langoustines, black-shelled umami-bomb scallops, and a wide variety of bright, saline oysters are just some of the many things you may find on your plate when dining in Rías Baixas. The possibilities are as limitless as the ocean and one’s imagination.
Origins of Rías Baixas and Do Ferreiro
The spark in the movement towards quality in Galicia began in Rías Baixas, with the creation of the Rías Baixas D.O. in 1988 and its subsequent success in markets around the world. This success opened up the imaginations of the region’s farmers who understood they have in their land one of the greatest wine traditions in the world. An ancient wine tradition was waiting to reawaken. Initially, the D.O. Rías Baixas consisted of three distinct subregions: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, and O Rosal. Later Soutomaior and Ribeira do Ulla were added in further expansions of the region.
Gerardo Méndez, the third generation of his family, created Do Ferreiro in 1973 and became known for his outsize contribution to the region as a leader of quality winemaking. In the early 1980s, there were almost no dedicated wineries and all the wine was made in people’s homes for personal consumption or sold to the local cooperative. One has to understand what Galicia was like twenty years ago: it was (and still is) an extremely rural place where wine was food, afforded the same amount of glamour as carrots or potatoes. But like all Gallegos who take pride in their harvest, Gerardo realized that his grapes could be coaxed to produce something special, something extraordinary and world-class.
Gerardo Méndez was part of the original group of fourteen growers who elevated the region’s potential, as he and his father were integral in the formation of the original denomination of origin Rías Baixas in 1988. The first wine made by Gerardo without labels was in 1973, with the first labeled, vintage wine from Do Ferreiro appearing in 1986. The Do Ferreiro house, Casa Grande, is located in Lores, at the foot of the Armenteria range where it is protected from the fog from the south, facing the Ría de Arousa. Directly in front of the house lies the famed Cepas Vellas vineyard, where each vine is uniquely pruned to suit the personality of these old vines, which were already documented in 1850.
In addition to his work in creating the denomination, he also began recovering old vineyards, farming them organically using natural compost, and restoring the traditional trellising methods. Gerardo is known for his absolute faith in the local emparrado system (pergola training), which he has adapted and refined over the years to allow more sun into the canopy, allowing for even ripeness and naturally lower yields. He lets his chickens roam through the vineyards the way his ancestors have done in the past, providing both natural pest control while contributing valuable nitrogen to the soil. Grapes are harvested by hand with great scrutiny, sorting the grapes in the vineyard, bunch by bunch, as opposed to using the famous "sorting table." Gerardo always utilized the indigenous yeasts present in his vineyard for fermentation, long before it became a trendy marketing term. Here in Sálnes, it’s just the way his father Francisco (known locally as "Pepe o Ferreiro" or Pepe the Blacksmith, hence the origin of the Do Ferreiro name) made his wines to sell to his neighbors.
Most of Gerardo’s neighbors in that era didn’t understand why someone would work so hard, risking their harvest by using indigenous yeasts and waiting to harvest until the grapes were perfectly ripe. Initially, they thought he was crazy, but as the wine started to achieve fame outside the region, people realized that he had been a visionary all along. Aspiring growers began to seek his advice in both farming and winemaking. Do Ferreiro was born from incredible raw material and an uncompromising dedication to quality, a legacy which continues today with his Gerardo’s son, Manuel, and daughter, Encarna, all working together to craft Do Ferreiro.
Towards the Future in the Next Generation
Today Manuel and Encarna are not only contributing to the same spirit of uncompromising quality to the family business, but they are also pushing the exploration of Rías Baixas into new, uncharted territory. Manuel is busy isolating plots and exploring what different soils, elevations, and exposures can bring to the expression of these great wines. He is farming single vineyards which demonstrate that site is multidimensional here in the same way that it is in all great wine growing regions of the world. With the introduction of his new, singular Lourido, Adina, and Dous Ferrados wines, he is leading the way to completely redefining the concept of what we think of when we speak of albariño from Rías Baixas.
We are indeed still just at the very beginning of a long journey of discovering the potential of Galicia and Northwestern Spain. In a recent tasting at our headquarters of many wines in the US market from all over Galicia, the conclusion was that the production remains uneven, as Galicia is an unforgiving climate, especially for newcomers and outsiders. Here greatness is carefully crafted, and the landscape demands respect and hard work. However, the future is bright as Galicia aspires to claim its place as one of the world’s great viticultural region, we are thankful to have as our guide, Gerardo Méndez, and his family.