Rias Baixas: Searching for Salinity at the Edge of the World Report and Buyer’s Guide

By John Szabo, MS, with notes from Sara d’Amato, David Lawrason, Michael Godel and Megha Jandyhala

This feature was commissioned by D.O. Rías Baixas

Since the turn of the century, the salty whites of Rías Baixas have risen to the top ranks of Spanish wine. Based largely on the fragrant but steely native albariño, an ancient grape that combines the perfume of viognier with the acid and structure of (dry) riesling, Rías Baixas counts among the most refreshing and seafood friendly wines of the Iberian Peninsula. Few serious restaurant wine lists are without at least one example, while specialists revel in the variable expressions born of the different subregions, and ageing techniques employed such as (old) wood cask versus stainless steel, and more or less time on palate-nourishing lees.

Read on to learn the origins of albariño and the science behind salinity in wine, with a few salient details along the way. Or, jump straight to the Rías Baixas Buyer’s Guide. Prefer podcasts? Listen to the Wine Thieves five-part series on the wines of Rías Baixas, including interviews with leading wine producers.

After crossing northern Spain westward from the Pyrenees, travellers on the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, arrive in the city of Santiago de Compostela. For religious pilgrims, this important medieval pilgrimage route ends here, in the capital of Galicia. But for wine lovers, the journey is only beginning. The real goal lies further out on the coast, another 100 kilometers or so to the west. Stop first at the point the Romans dubbed Cape Finisterre literally, the end of the earth — and the westernmost piece of rock in Europe, staring into the gaping and mighty Atlantic.

Then journey south along the wild Galician coast featuring slick, moss-covered granite and a series of spectacular jagged inlets and shallow fjords known as Rías, where salty sea meets sweet water. It’s here in the region known as Rías Baixas, meaning the “lower rias,” or lower estuaries, that Spain’s premier source for fresh, crunchy, salty, mainly (but not exclusively) white wines, has emerged over the last couple of decades.

Green Spain

This small northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, fittingly referred to as “Green Spain,” is unlike any other part of the country. For one, the region has its own language — Gallego — which is closer to Portuguese than Castilian Spanish, as is the architecture of its grand manor houses. And visually it defies the image most people have of Spain and its eternal sunshine and palette of parched brown and olive green, offering instead a verdant landscape of emerald hillsides and granite castles shrouded in mist. Galicia counts four out of the five wettest cities in Spain: Santiago, Pontevedra, A Coruña and Vigo; only San Sebastián in Basque country measures up with similar rainfall. And ultimately, it’s the wild Atlantic weather and the weathered granite that shape these wines.

Finding Albariño

After finding the end of the world, the Romans did what Romans do: plant grapes to make wine. Archeological digs and DNA fingerprinting have recently revealed that the region’s marquee grape variety, albariño, originated here, debunking the various myths that it originated in the Rhine Valley and found its way to the area with the migration of Germanic peoples in the 5th century, or that it was introduced by French Cistercian monks on pilgrimage from Cluny in the 12th century. Carmen Martínez, head of viticulture at the biological research center in Pontevedra, and her collaborators discovered grape seeds preserved in salt, literally, at a site called O Areal — the only Roman salt flat still in existence. Analysis showed that the seeds were nearly identical genetically to the albariño planted in the region today. In all likelihood then, according to Martinez, albariño’s ancestor was a native wild woodland vine that the Romans domesticated for wine production.

But it would take centuries for albariño to emerge as the region’s star variety. While wine production was already important in the 14th and 15th centuries, and planting in Rías Baixas expanded significantly throughout the 19th century, red varieties, perhaps surprisingly, dominated the landscape. Later, the sherry grape palomino gained favor. In 1975, for example, there were just 200 hectares of albariño planted. Acreage has since risen as steeply as the edge of a fjord as albariño’s potential was recognized, and today, there are more than 4,000 hectares of albariño, accounting for more than 95 percent of DO Rías Baixas’s vineyards. Palomino has been all but forgotten.

DO Rías Baixas

Considering the moderate year-round temperatures, perennial ocean mists and annual rainfall that in some spots is nearly three times the national average, Rías Baixas may not seem to offer an ideal environment for high-quality grape growing. Yet it’s precisely this combination of climate, landscape, free-draining granite soils, the traditional pergola trellising system, and indigenous grape varieties — like vigorous albariño — that together make distinctive, high-quality wines possible. And Galicia’s damp Atlantic climate is balanced by more than 2,200 hours of sunshine, sufficient to ensure that grapes ripen fully while retaining all-important natural acidity and a delightfully fresh aromatic profile.

The modern winemaking history of Rías Baixas can be traced to 1980 when an official denomination was created specifically for albariño, called La Denominación Específica Albariño. This was changed to Denominación de Origen (DO) Rías Baixas in 1988 when Spain joined the European Union, as EU wine laws did not recognize an appellation named for a single grape variety. But Spain’s accession to the EU brought not only administrative interference, it also brought funding and investment to Rías Baixas, as elsewhere, helping it modernize the industry and build an international following.


Albariño & Friends

More than ninety-nine per cent of wine produced in Rías Baixas is white. Up to 14 different grape varieties are allowed; albariño is, of course, king, accounting for 95 percent of plantings. But other white varieties worth knowing include loureira blanca, an aromatic grape reminiscent of bay leaves or laurel from which it takes its name. It’s most often blended because its low sugar (generally) and high acidity make it challenging to enjoy on its own. Treixadura is at home especially in the warmer Condado do Tea subzone, bringing freshness and acidity and green apple flavours. And late ripening caiño blanco has a few champions in the region, and makes promising wine especially given climate shifting. The remaining whites are torrontés and godello, the latter widely planted elsewhere in Galicia but rare in Rías Baixas. Reds are exceedingly rare, less than one percent of production, but gaining favour among growers and consumers, especially as the world thirsts ever-more for fresh Atlantic reds. Be prepared to embrace caiño tinto, castañal, espadeiro, loureira tinta, sousón, mencía, brancellao and dozal in the near future.

The Sub-Zones

The DO counts nearly 4500 hectares divided into five sub-zones according to topography, altitude and proximity to rivers and the sea. Differences in microclimate and soil, as well as grape variety(ies) and winemaking techniques, make for surprising diversity. From largest to smallest in terms of plantings, the sub-zones are Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Ribera do Ulla and Soutomaior. Wines labelled simply “Rías Baixas” can come from any or all of these sub-regions, even if wines from a single sub-zone are frequently labelled under the more recognizable Rías Baixas designation.

Val do Salnés

The Val do Salnés lies in the northern half of the region and has the most coastline of any subzone — it hangs right out into the Atlantic, with many vineyards a stone’s throw from the ocean and where you can taste the salt in the air. It’s more than just maritime influenced, its full-on oceanic, and consequently the coolest and wettest of the five sub-regions. Albariño represents 96 percent of vineyards. “Val do Salnés is the heart of the region,” says Katia Alvarez, winemaker at the Martín Codax cooperative winery based in the Salnés Valley. “It’s 100 percent open to the sea, and that makes all the difference.” Expect pronounced crisp, aromatic citrusy and saline character from these wines.

Condado do Tea

Condado de Tea is the second largest sub-region behind the Salnés Valley. It starts inland about 40 kilometres from the coast along the Miño River (Minho in Portuguese) and extends into rugged, mountainous territory. The region gets its name from a tributary of the Miño, called the Tea River, which runs through Condado do Tea (the “County of Tea”). As the most inland of the sub-regions, it’s the least Atlantic, although there is no question that all of Rías Baixas can be considered a maritime terroir —this is not La Mancha! But it’s less directly affected by cooling marine breezes, making it warmer overall. The soils are quite shallow, with granite and slate sub-layers quite near the surface, with plenty of alluvial material along with pebbles and sand on top, deposited by both the Tea and the Miño rivers. Albariño is, again, the major grape, but treixadura is the second variety of choice, which has a firm, steely structure, high acids and apple-y flavours. In general Condado do Tea wines feature more flesh and earthier character than other Rías Baixas whites.


O Rosal

Moving westward from the Condado do Tea toward the coast along the Miño, passing terraced hillside vineyards on the north bank, you’ll reach O Rosal, the third largest sub-zone of Rías Baixas accounting for about 11 per cent of plantings. Being both southerly and coastal, the temperature averages between Condado do Tea, the warmest, and Val do Salnés, the coolest. Terraced, south-facing vineyards along the north bank of the Miño enjoy excellent sun exposure, maximizing the nearly 2,200 sunshine hours per year. Ripeness is nudged to a slightly higher degree than in the Salnés Valley, enabling even late varieties like caiño to deliver. Another distinguishing feature of Rosal is the band of schist bedrock that runs through the region, a variation on the otherwise granite-derived soils in most of the rest of the Rías Baixas DO Albariño is the main variety, but complementary white varieties loureiro, treixadura, caiño and even godello have a role to play. You can expect the white wines of O Rosal to tilt toward peachier, stone fruit flavours and relatively generous and rounded palate.

Ribeira do Ulla & Soutomaior

The cool, northernmost but drier Ribeira do Ulla sub-zone was established about a decade after the main three above inland around the Ulla River. And, finally, tiny Soutomaior was created, the smallest of the sub-regions, sitting on the coast in the center of the region tucked in the hills at the head of the Rías de Vigo. Wines labelled under these two sub-regions are rare.

Searching For Salinity

One common feature of all these wines is their appealing saline quality. “In Rías Baixas, the wind and rain coming in from the Atlantic are rich in chloride and other salts of the sea,” says Roberto Taibo, winemaker of family-run coop Moraima in the Val do Salnés. “This influences the soil, little by little adding chlorides, phosphates, and sulfates, as well as potassium, sodium, calcium and other salts. This, along with our granite soil, leads to elevated minerality and wines rich in salts, particularly chloride.” Taibo notes that wines in the Val do Salnés in particular can reach salinity concentrations of 200 to 400 milligrams per liter—exceptionally high. So there you have it, salinity explained.

Rías Baixas and Food

I asked Michelin starred chef-sommelier José González-Solla (Pepe to his friends) of Casa Solla, near Pontevedra in Galicia, for his insight on how visitors to the region would enjoy the wines of Rías Baixas with local foods. González-Solla is famed for an inventive style of cooking that’s firmly focused on the authentic flavours of Galicia.

“Galicia is the best place in the world to be a chef,” Pepe says, thanks to the excellent quality of regional ingredients. There is, of course, the bounty of the Rías to draw from, where sweet and saltwater meet on the Spanish coast, which includes the world’s best razor clams, as well as mussels, crab and pulpo (octopus), to name but a few. González-Solla recommends minimal preparation: “If you are very confident in your ingredients, you don’t have to cook very much. Traditionally in Galicia, seafood and shellfish would simply be boiled.” He is also adamant that proper seafood preparation is “not a matter of timing but of temperatures,” advocating to keep temperatures low (think sous-vide) to maintain the integrity of the proteins. But the secret to tender octopus, he claims, is to give it a 30-minute massage before cooking. The less tactile can simply freeze fresh octopus for at least 24 hours to break down the fibers.

Virtually anything from the sea will sing with any one of the region’s whites. Head to O Rosal or Condado do Tea when richer preparations hit the table such as grilled, roasted or stewed dishes, or stay in Val do Salnés when crisp acids and citrus flavours are called for, as with a plate of freshly steamed razor clams or mussels.

The sea may steal the spotlight in the kitchen, but inland Galicia also has much to offer. “The selection of shellfish is so good that it doubtlessly eclipses some of the region’s other culinary marvels,” says González-Solla, but he sings the praises of the region’s “wonderful vegetable gardens filled with top-notch fresh produce, sublime beef, poultry meat from native breeds that are making a comeback, and a singular pork culture that is very different from that of the Iberian pig that is found in other Spanish regions, and which is rooted in the practice of salt curing.” The reason for this was simple, he says. “The pig was butchered and many of its products were cured using salt and spices like pimentón [smoked paprika] to preserve them for the entire year. This practice led to the emergence of truly flavorful recipes with pork.”

He advises people to pay attention to the wealth of local cheeses, made mainly with cow’s milk, which is rare in the rest of Spain. They’re made into unique shapes such as the mushroom-shaped cheese known as Cebreiro, the creamy Arzùa-Ulloa, the golden pear-shaped of San Simón da Costa and the breast-shaped cheese known as Tetilla. 

González-Solla also encourages his customers to try the red wines from Galicia, which he describes as “very fresh, light, less meaty, but with a deep Atlantic character that always make me think that Galicia is the Burgundy of Spain.” Serve these with a light chill. And aside from poultry, pork or beef preparations, these reds work surprisingly well with seafood as well, especially pulpo alla gallega, boiled octopus with pimentón de la vera and olive oil.

Rías Baixas Buyers Guide: White (available through the agent listed unless LCBO # is indicated)

Granbazán Albariño Etiqueta Ambar 2021

Granbazán Albariño Etiqueta Ambar 2021, D.O. Rías Baixas (1500ml) Galicia, Spain
$85.00, Brix + Mortar Wine Co.              
David Lawrason Impressively poured from a tall, slender magnum flute, this is a rich, complex albariño with a terrific nose of apricot, pineapple, honey, candle wax and macaroon. It is quite full bodied, lush, rich and dense with great acidity, a touch of effervescence and saline minerality on the finish.
John Szabo
– An impressive bottle (tasted from magnum), but even more impressive wine, Granbazan’s 2021 Etiquetta Ambar, a step up from the estate’s classic Etiquetta Verde, is a fragrant, citrus, sweet spice and herb-inflected wine, with terrific depth and weight, not to mention range of Atlantic flavours. Length is very good. In this large format the wine could surely continue to improve over the next 2-3 years or longer, though it’s delicious now to be sure.
Sara d’Amato – Lots of tang and bang in a bottle that commands attention, this crowd-worthy albariño is notably fragrant with energetic zest. Good short to mid-term aging potential here so no need to find an occasion before the year end. Michael Godel – A saltiness seasons the combination of stone and citrus fruit. Great freshness, tannic too, with top ranking acidity (at 7.72 TA) and finally this thrust of extract and poise to put this in the upper echelon of such distinct wines.

Pazo De San Mauro Albariño 2021

Pazo De San Mauro Albariño 2021, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$37.99, Icon Fine Wine and Spirits                
Michael Godel Concentration is off the charts, freshness and intensity with side aromatic seasoning provided by scallion and wild ginger. Crisp, crunchy and really vivid. Should age well.
John Szabo
– Though the fact is not listed on the label, this hails from estate fruit in the Condado do Tea subregion of Rías Baixas, a warmer, inland zone that typically yields albariño of greater depth and fruit, if less salinity and verve than coastal versions. This example shows lovely creamy richness, a broad and round, though still fresh, citrus-inflected palate, with no shortage of saltiness in the end. I love the energy here, and the finish that goes on and on. A serious version to be sure. Best now to 2027 for the fully mature version–this has some stuffing.
Megha Jandhyala – From the Condado do Tea subregion of Rias Baixas, this is a rich, wonderfully expressive albariño, emitting melodious notes of sweet, ripe orchard fruit, juicy lemons, and honeysuckle. The palate is similarly generous and rewarding, salty, glassy, and rounded, with nonetheless uplifting, fresh acidity.

Terra De Asorei Nai E Senora Albariño Albarino 2021

Terra De Asorei Nai E Senora Albariño Albarino 2021, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$23.93, Le Sommelier Inc.              
David Lawrason Right down main street for Rias Baixas – fresh, tender, lively and fragrant with pear-peach fruit, lemon blossom, subtle fresh herbs/evergreen. plus a banana note. It is light to medium bodied, slightly effervescent with a bitter edge lemon peel finish.
John Szabo
– Pure albariño from the Val do Salnés region, this is as lovely, crunchy, tart and fresh a version as one would hope for and expect, with good weight and density on the palate, as well as length. For me this ticks all of the boxes, with lots of pleasure to be had over the near term, the next year or two.
Sara d’Amato – A delightfully chalky and nervy albariño from Val do Salnés, the largest, most coastal, coolest, and wettest of the sub-appellations in Rias Baixas. Pure, salty, and exhibiting a distinctive acidic tension. Wildflowers, white grapefruit and thyme are memorably present on the on the taut and lengthy finish. Megha Jandhyala – The Nai E Senora is a refreshing, perfumed albariño from Val do Salnés, pleasantly floral, with fresh orchard, stone, and citrus fruit. I especially like the fleshy, supple, ever so slightly salty palate, and long, slightly pithy finish.

Altos de Torona Rosal Albariño Blend 2020

Altos de Torona Rosal Albariño Blend 2020, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$33.00, AMV-Whiz Trading Ltd.                
Sara d’Amato – Its origins lie in a warmer sub-appellation of Rias Baixas, yet this O Rosal blend of albariño, caiño and loureira is delectably tart. cleanly crafted with citrus fruit and white peach juxtaposed by a briny character and a hint of cut grass. Complex, energetic and widely appealing.
Megha Jandhyala – This is an opportunity to try a traditional albariño-based blend from the O Rosal sub-region of Rías Baixas. The Altos de Torona is delightfully fresh and salty, imbued with floral, herbal, and stone and citrus fruit aromas. I was especially drawn to its texture, light and refined, with a delicate granularity, like georgette silk.
Michael Godel – The saltiness is now integrated into the citrus fruit and the bitters nearly fully softened. Will drink well through to the end of summer and into early fall.

Attis Xión Albariño 2021

Attis Xión Albariño 2021, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$23.95, 30 50 Imports           
Sara d’Amato – Raised organically in the expansive Val do Salnés subregion, this refreshingly tart albariño pours an eye-catching golden colour – the first sign of an atypical style. With more complexity than the norm, the lees-driven palate is lightly creamy with flavours of poached pear, passion fruit, toast, and a distinctive saltiness. Memorable.
David Lawrason – A stylistic detour, but effective. This is a deeply coloured yellow-gold albarino with a very ripe nose of peach/apricot, banana, daffodil and some leesy and fudgy character. It is medium-full bodied, smooth and almost creamy with good underlying acidity and warmth. This is very substantial within the genre – different but high quality.

Pazo De Senorans Albarino 2021

Pazo De Senorans Albarino 2021, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$39.99, Rogers & Company                
Michael Godel – A varietal wine of attack, with spirit and tact to seize the day and your willingly submissive palate. Fried and grilled fishes of all ilk and biological genera should be on the menu alongside.

Paco & Lola Albariño 2021

Paco & Lola Albariño 2021, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$18.95, Azureau Wines & Spirits (LCBO #350041)               
John Szabo – A hugely popular brand internationally from Galicia, Paco y Lola’’s 2021 Rías Baixas is a cool, crisp, crunchy green, fresh and electric albariño up front in the 2021 vintage style, a cooler and wetter year than the five previous vintages, though with soft, salty finish, balanced, with good to very good length. It’s a model of what one would want to sip on the terrace, or of course seaside with food from the same area. Drink now. The modern Paco y Lola cooperative does a bang-up job year after year. Consistency is key to their success. Buy, chill, crack.

Rias Baixas Buyer’s Guide: Red

Attis Xión Cuvée Tinto 2019

Attis Xión Cuvée Tinto 2019, D.O. Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
$31.95, 30 50 Imports             
John Szabo – Bodegas Attis’s lightest and freshest red wine, Xion is a blend of local varieties Pedral, Sousón and Espadeiro, the wines are aged in large oak foudres though absent any notable wood influence. I love the fresh red and black fruit on the nose, and especially the floral-violet character, reminiscent of cool climate malbec or even syrah. The palate is lean and sharp in the best way, tart and fresh, with light tannins and acidulated finish, like red currant cordial without any sugar. A wine to enjoy now, young and on the fruit, lightly chilled–could even go seafood with this.

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by D.O. Rías Baixas. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines — good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.