Spain conjures up a plethora of evocative scenes: sizzling pots of paella, flamenco dancers twirling in dramatic skirts, and music trickling down bistro-lined streets. For many international travelers, sunny beaches and hot, flat plains dominate their visions of the Spanish landscape. But tucked in the northwestern corner of Spain, north of skinny Portugal, is a part of the country that looks more like Ireland than Iberia. Galicia, known as “green Spain,” produces a different style of wine than anywhere else in the country — one that you should be drinking now.
Vines were introduced to Galicia by the Romans and, with the help of 12th-century monks, a solid culture of winemaking from local grape varieties has been present for centuries. The Atlantic Ocean borders Galicia to the north and west, and vineyards in regions closest to the coast sometimes overlook cliffs that fall to the waves below. The landscape is green and lush, vegetation fed by ocean moisture, with small rivers and estuaries called rías cutting through soft, rolling hills.
Galicia has five major wine regions: Rías Baixas, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras, and Monterrei. While individual mesoclimates create different area specialties, the wines of Galicia tend to be light, fragrant, and acid-driven, much like its neighboring Portuguese counterpart, Minho and Vinho Verde.
Galicia’s cool, maritime climate makes it more hospitable to white grapes.
Albariño: Albariño is the most important white grape variety in Galicia, particularly in the key region of Rías Baixas. While it can vary in style, classic notes for Albariño are light-to-medium in body, high in acidity, and very fragrant, with notes of peach, Meyer lemon, and apple blossom. On the palate, Albariño tends to be mineral-driven and even salty, with more of a tart, lemon-lime flavor.
Godello: Mistakenly thought to be the same grape as Madeira’s Verdelho, Godello has recently become more popular for producing medium-to-full-bodied white wines with a mineral signature. At their best, Godello wines can be as complex as white Burgundy.
Treixadura: When used in blends, Treixadura tends to add body and alcohol, structural components sometimes needed in a region that tends to produce high-acid whites. On its own, it generally carries fresh, fruit-driven notes like lemon and apple.
Loureiro: Typically used as a blending grape, Loureiro adds rich, exotic scents like orange oil and fruit blossom to wines. It is high in acidity and low in alcohol, making it a good counterpart for Treixadura.
Galician red wines are rarer than whites, grown only in warmer, sunnier regions, but they can be incredibly exciting, zippy bottles.
Mencía: The most notable red grape in the region, Mencía is best known for its intense, concentrated iterations in Bierzo, just east of Galicia. It’s a challenging variety that requires vineyards that get enough warmth and sun for full ripening, but not so much warmth that alcohol levels go through the roof. The best examples are layered, structured, and fresh, with red fruit notes, minerality, and spicy, herbal accents.
Caiño Tinto: Not planted at all outside Galicia and Portugal’s Minho, Caiño Tinto is known for making acid-driven, almost sour red wines that rarely exceed medium body. However, the grape has thick skins and high tannins, leading many winemakers to vinify it using carbonic maceration, as in Beaujolais.
Espadeiro: A little-grown red grape with dark skins, Espadeiro makes light, juicy reds suitable for youthful drinking.
One of Spain’s rare non-contiguous appellations, Rías Baixas, or “lower estuaries,” is the most well-known part of Galicia. It consists of five sub-regions sprinkled along Galicia’s Atlantic coast and the Portuguese border. The sub-regions, Val do Salnés, Ribeira do Ulla, Soutomaior, O Rosal, and Condado do Tea, all benefit from a cool, wet, sunny maritime climate and acid-boosting granite soils, making it a hub for crisp, minerally white wines.
Classic Rías Baixas wine tends to be made entirely from the Albariño variety, which comprises over 90 percent of the region’s vineyards. Increasingly producers are experimenting with oak aging and malolactic fermentation, but the typical style of Albariño from Rías Baixas is aromatic yet acid-driven, sometimes described by sommeliers as “Viognier on the nose, Riesling on the palate.” While there is a classic, overarching style of Albariño from Rías Baixas, each of the area’s sub-regions imparts a slightly different character to the wine. Wines from the coastal Val do Salnés tend to have intensely briny minerality, while the warmer, inland Condado do Tea area turns up the volume on lush, peachy fruit aromas. O Rosal, which lies just across the Miño River from Portugal, is most likely to blend Albariño with other varieties like Loureiro and Treixadura. A very small amount of red wine is made from the varieties Caiño, Espadeiro, and Mencía.
While demand for Ribeiro wine reached as far as England in the 17th century, today the region isn’t seen quite as often in export markets. It is located along the northern banks of the Miño River, just to the east of Rías Baixas’ Condado do Tea. While Ribeiro has a large Atlantic influence, it is slightly warmer than Rías Baixas, making it a better region for both red and white wines. Treixadura-dominant white wines are Ribeiro’s specialty, with fuller body and more tart acidity than its neighbor, as are the sweet appassimento method wines called Viño Tostado. Reds are typically made from Caiño and have tons of acidity with strong tannins.
Cut off from most of the rest of Spain until recently is the spectacularly beautiful Ribeira Sacra, which curves around the Miño and Sil Rivers northeast of Ribeiro. The landscape is dramatic, with terraced vines that cut into insanely steep slopes, reminiscent of the northern Rhône Valley. While Ribeira Sacra produces white wines from Godello and other local white grapes, it is more known for concentrated reds made from Mencía, which benefits from a long ripening season and cool nighttime temperatures.
The so-called “gateway to Galicia” is the region’s easternmost appellation, sandwiched in between Ribeira Sacra and Castilla y Léon’s Bierzo. Valdeorras doesn’t see much of an Atlantic influence, being farthest inland, but it does get plenty of rainfall in its high-elevation vineyards. Valdeorras has become very well known for layered, medium-bodied white wines from the Godello grape, known for citrus, herbal, and mineral-influenced notes. Some also barrel-ferment their Godello wines, making a richer, Burgundian-styled wine. Mencía and other red grapes are used to make a richer, fruitier style of red wine, as well as rosé.
The southernmost winemaking area in Galicia, Monterrei is named for the nearby, castle-topped “King’s Mountain” that overlooks the region’s vineyards. Situated on the Portuguese border, south of Ribeira Sacra, Monterrei’s location gives it a warmer, more continental climate than elsewhere in Galicia, so wines tend to be relatively fuller-bodied. Fewer producers make wine here than anywhere else in Galicia, but new investment is helping winemakers to increase production quantity and quality. Look for whites made from Godello and Treixadura and reds made from Mencía and Bastardo (a.k.a. Trousseau) in the coming years.