Geographically isolated from the rest of Spain by mountain ranges, and culturally isolated by its Celtic tradition, Galicia is one of Spain’s smallest and most unique winemaking zones. Galicians have a culture entirely distinct from the rest of the country, from their language Gallego, which is similar to Portuguese, to their love of the bagpipes. But compared to the bold, colourful stereotypes of traditional Spanish culture, Galicia’s history of economic strife has supported its modest and dour image, and its reputation as Spain’s poor cousin.
Galicians have been pouring their wines locally for centuries but it was not until Spain joined the EU in 1986 that the region became financially stable enough to start producing them commercially. Two decades on, its small winemaking regions are producing individual and expressive world-class wines, finally giving the Galician identity a clear voice.
In the last decade, the region of Rias Baixas in western Galicia has become known for producing the finest white wines in Spain. Sitting against the Atlantic ocean, Rias Baixas is one of the wettest parts of the country. From the lush green hills to the misty winter climate, it looks more like Ireland than the rest of Spain. Winemaking is fairly new here and almost entirely based around the indigenous albariño grape. The wines are delicately aromatic with taut minerality and flushing acidity. These straight-shooting wines reveal charming sophistication in their purity. Look for Zarate Albariño 2011, or the slightly more robust Do Ferreiro Albariño 2011. Do Ferreiro’s top wine, the Cepas Vellas Albariño, from 200-year-old vines, is a particularly breathtaking example of the region’s rich focus and intensity.
Inland from Rias Baixas, the Ribeira Sacra region may be producing the most underrated red wines in Spain. The vineyards here are some of the most magnificent in the world; terrifyingly steep, the oldest stone terraces were built into the nearly vertical slate hillsides by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. Here, the indigenous mencía grape is king. It is almost impossible to convey the work that is required to hike the vertical terraces, and cultivate the slopes by hand—it is always inspiring, the lengths to which people will go to make wine.
The mencía from Ribeira Sacra is lighter and earthier than the inky, juicy examples from the neighbouring denominación de origen, Bierzo. The wines are graceful, lightly spiced, and intensely mineral in a sense that is almost Burgundian. Ribeira Sacra is being led by a new generation of winemakers set on producing drinks with a nod to the region’s rugged history. Showing opulent red fruit and an almost feral herbal quality, try the Dominio do Bibei Lalama 2008, or the bold, loosely jointed D Ventura Viña Caneiro 2010.
Valdeorras is the easternmost winemaking zone in Galicia. The region was originally an important Roman site for gold and, when the gold was exhausted, the land was converted to vines. Valdeorras’s most exciting wines come from the indigenous white godello grape. Nearly extinct until a few dedicated winemakers established its revival in the mid 1970s, it is now gathering increasing renown for its versatility, muscular structure and juicy minerality. Like chardonnay, godello is fairly neutral in character and, though there are some heavily oaked examples, most of the wines from Valdeorras tend to err on the side of fresh, lively and ripe. Try the rich and nervy Valdeorras Viña Godeval 2010, or the slightly creamier Bodegas Rafael Palacios Louro do Bolo 2011.
While Galician wines—born from remote slopes and humble origins—remained obscure for centuries, they reveal some of Spanish winemaking’s greatest indigenous strengths. The native grapes channel Galicia’s unique heritage into wines that are focussed and expressive, while the style of winemaking is couched in a commitment to tradition. These wines are fine new ambassadors from a region whose identity has long been misunderstood.