Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.


Published:  23 July, 2008

Apart from the Albarios of Ras Baixas, few wines from Galicia have made any impact on the UK market. Jack Hibberd travels to a verdant corner of Spain to take a look at its most famous export and see what else is on offer

The region of Galicia, in northwestern Iberia, is unlike any other in Spain. Most noticeably its greenness' sets it apart from most of its arid counterparts. Rich vegetation covers the landscape fed by the high annual rainfall (900mm per year), which can reach twice the national average. But vinously, as well as meteorologically and botanically, Galicia is unique amongst Spanish wine producing regions. It is famous for the Albario grape, which features prominently on export labels, grown, in the most part, on the famous pergolas of the coast-hugging DO of Ras Baixas. At its best it produces an aromatic mouthful of peach and citrus, with both acidity and grace; but Albario is far from the only grape grown in Galicia. Nor is Ras Baixas the only DO. Carlos Read, managing director of Moreno Wines, estimates that 160 indigenous varieties grow in this remote part of Spain, including grapes such as Torronts, which have found more favour (and varietal expression) elsewhere in the world, and the local favourites Menca (red) and Godello (white). Alongside Ras Baixas are four other DOs: Ribeiro, Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei. Each, along with many other parts of Spain, has taken major steps forward in terms of quality in recent years, with the global standard of temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel tanks the norm rather than the exception. Although here, it is light reds and aromatic whites, rather than the big gutsy wines of Priorato and Ribera del Duero, that have come to the fore. Jos Velo-Rego, director at importers C&D and a native of Galicia, says this emphasis on whites is in response to a changing market. Galicia has real potential as a white wine region, and the process of modernisation has already started, people are upgrading and raising production. White wine in Spain was once only used for cooking, but ten to fifteen years ago people started looking for quality whites and the region has moved to accommodate that. Then Galicia was producing 60% red and 40% white, and now that has more or less reversed.' It was Ras Baixas that led this rush towards quality - despite the fact it was only awarded DO status in 1988, later than both Ribeiro (1957) and Valdeorras (1978) - with investment from Riojan producers such as La Rioja Alta adding impetus to the modernisation process. The mix of grapes planted in the vineyards was more or less completely replaced by Albario and others that can make quality wine, such as Luoreira and Torronts. Producers such as Granbazan, Bodegas Palacio de Fefinanes, and the giant of the region, Bodegas Martin Codax, started to produce wines that could really compete internationally in terms of freshness, flavour and finesse. The DO was expanded by the addition of two more sub-zones in May 2000 and production continues to grow. So is Ras Baixas going to move up to the big league? Unfortunately it has one main disadvantage: price. As Andrew McCarthy, an Englishman who fell in love with the region (and the daughter of a producer) and is now export manager for Bodegas Castro Martin, explains: The big disadvantage here is that the vineyard parcels are very, very small, some are almost people's back gardens. We have ten hectares ourselves, and buy in about sixty per cent of the grapes we need. The simple fact is grape costs are too high to produce wine at a competitive price. When you look at how much of the finished wine is taken up by grape costs, it's enormous. You can't begin to explain the implications of that to the growers. If you say, "look you're forcing up the bottle price and that makes it difficult to export which will have a detrimental effect in the long term", it's like talking to a brick wall. It's very insular here.' The wines of smaller producers are usually available in the UK for around 10 retail, while even the largest cannot afford to go lower than 6.99. Variable harvests, and the lack of large producers also keep prices up. According to McCarthy, if he could afford to bring prices down to 4.99, he could probably sell all our production in the UK alone', but at its present level it sits in a bracket with some of the biggest names in the wine world. And Ras Baixas hardly has the cachet of Sancerre or Marlborough. Bodegas Martin Codax however, is one Galician producer which has managed to make its presence felt in the UK, with listings in both Majestic and Oddbins, as well as small fine wine shops. Velo-Rego, of importer C&D, says he sells an allocation of around 3,000 cases relatively easily and is optimistic about future growth, especially because the good 2002 harvest could mean 5,000 cases for the UK this year. According to Pablo Bujan Blanco, export director at the Bodega, it's a market he is aiming to concentrate on. Our biggest sales increase last year was in the UK,' he says, and we are going to increase promotional activity this year. We are concentrating on point of sale and have some interesting plans.' But he admits that price remains a problem in the UK. Luckily for Ras Baixas, other countries in the world aren't as price sensitive as the Brits. The biggest export market by far', according to McCarthy, is the US, where the high price of local wine means they don't balk at the prices'. The wealthy Swiss are apparently also fans. So with a healthy domestic market, gradually improving quality, and enthusiastic, if limited, export market, it seems that Ras Baixas is quietly doing rather well. Increasing use of oak fermentation (only moderately successful) and increased bottle ageing (surprisingly appealing) suggests the best could be yet to come.

Around the DOs Protected by a healthy domestic market, and handicapped by similarly high prices, fragmented land ownership and limited investment, it appears other DOs share Ras Baixas' problems. But at the moment, they haven't found Ras Baixas' solution: individuality, quality and expression. Ribeiro, the largest of the DOs, can produce wine at a lower price - with some truly large scale producers in evidence - although sadly, with a few notable exceptions, the quality and style of wine is not suitable for export. Palomino is prolific; too many dull wines with little aroma dominate. Where freshness, fruit and a zingy acidity should be in evidence, little is apparent. Ribeira Sacra - although blessed with scenery that rivals the Douro for sheer drama, as it follows the River Sil through its numerous twists and turns - is similarly lacking in style, while the production costs incurred on its seriously steep vineyards mean it has some of the highest prices of all Galician DOs. Valdeorras seems to have more potential: a more reliable climate, less rain and lower night temperatures, more easily accessible vineyards, a longer history of medium-size production and (as the largest producer of granite in Europe) the right kind of soil. However, again quality control seems to be a problem. The grapes that dominate quality wine production in both Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra - and to a lesser extent Ribeiro - are Menca and Godello. Menca is the great red hope, to an extent that in Valdeorras it is the only recommended red grape. Producing mainly joven wines, it has been suggested that it is related to Cabernet Franc, and indeed it shares many of its properties: early flowering and ripening (essential to beat the autumn showers which fall without fail in mid-September), while providing good colour and fruit flavours. In Galicia, however, Menca appears stubborn, yielding little weight or tannin, and producing wines with rarely more than 12% alcohol (although this seems more by choice than necessity). The majority of the reds produced in Valdeorras, Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra, are often almost Beaujolais-like in weight with, as McCarthy says, a little more spice'. Some experimentation has been done with oak ageing in all three DOs, although some may wonder if it is necessary for such a light (and ordinary) grape. Godello, meanwhile, has shown more promise, especially in Valdeorras. Bodegas Via Costeia's wine, Guitian, a 100% Godello, which bursts with fruit while retaining a certain European elegance, shows what can be done. Production is tiny, with only about 5,000 cases made per year and only 100 of those coming to the UK through C&D. But it's an example to follow for the whole of the DO -although few appear to be doing so. One that has, albeit belatedly, is Bodega Valdeorra, an improving outfit owned by the sprightly Guillermo Prada Luengo. Imported by Laymont & Shaw, sales in the UK have been steady, if slow, over the past few years, with the 100% Godello the only real mover. Luengo, however, has ambitious plans for his Bodega. I want to make one of the highest quality wines in Spain, I think there is a gap in the market for a quality white wine with a bit more weight than Albario. Godello can fill that,' he says. Luengo has hired a young Burgundian winemaker, Sebastian Defer, in an attempt to boost quality at Valdeorra. In his first year he has introduced a sorting table for grape selection, green harvesting, semi-organic practices and identified the vineyards with the greatest potential and age. Two new wines have been made experimentally this year, to sit alongside the main Valdesil brand. Pezas da Portela and its barrel fermented version are a selection from old vines and high quality' vineyard sites. Leungo has strong views on the Valdeorras DO. I don't believe in DOs at all,' he says. We left ours three years ago, but for the domestic market you need to have it on the label, so we rejoined. But there are huge differences between our vineyards and those of other producers, which are generally low yielding sites high on the hills, or high yielding sites down on the valley floor. We don't want to be put in the same DO as the big co-ops. We believe in the quality of our wines, and we want to tell consumers about them, but it can be a problem building an image.' Read of Moreno Wines, has similar views. For the export market to be associated with Valdeorras or Ribeiro can be counter-productive and will be for quite some time,' he says, unless the politicos put their money into funding the smaller producers to upgrade in a mega way. (And in some cases it can be as simple as sending an oenologist abroad.) It won't change.'

The UK market So is there a future for the wines outside Ras Baixas? Not really, according to Harris. For too many years the producers have had a home market that has unquestioningly drunk everything they have made. They have now decided to sell abroad merely as an adjunct to the production they couldn't sell at home. But that simply doesn't work.' Read takes a similar line. Outside Ras Baixas there are few quirky regional whites that can show very interesting flavours and can perhaps be sold for 6 or 7 in the UK,' he says. But you know in advance the market will be limited, and it takes a great deal of effort on behalf of the sales force to sell it. When someone with money gets involved and is interested enough to make proper selection of the proliferation of native grapes, then anything is possible. There has been a research station in the region for over twenty years, but you see very few producers making use of it.' One producer that is all of the above - well funded, quirky and making full use of the research station (its head is the Bodega's oenologist) - is the pet project of one of Spain's most famous fashion designers - Roberto Verino. Bodegas Terra de Gargalo, in the tiny DO of Monterrei (which, like Valedeorras, benefits from lower night-time temperatures, more sunlight and less rain) makes three wines: a white, a joven red and a crianza. All are good, with the white the most impressive. Consisting of 70% Treixadura, 20% Godello and 10% Dona Blanca, it makes a mockery of the arguments of some Valdeorras producers that good wines from the region have to be 100% Godello. In the red, Menca has wisely been given a bit part (20%) in favour of the local form of Tempranillo, with Bastardo making up the rest (10%). A visit to the winery puts the place in context (its not often you see a photo of Helena Christensen peeping out behind the pneumatic press): it's more of a hobby than a commercial proposition, but it does show what can be achieved when you combine local grapes with serious investment. So what of the future? Velo-Rego warns against judging the wines too harshly. We are still learning,' he says. We have been watching the area for years and we have seen steady improvement in quality. A lot of wineries aren't ready to export yet, but soon it could be exciting. Ras Baixas has shown us that already.' Read is more pessimistic. The only option is to be very specific. Anything is possible, but wine from here is always going to be expensive. The growers also have to make sure they know what is in their vineyards: in one hectare there might be fifteen different varieties,' he claims. Whatever the truth, it's clear that at the moment Ras Baixas rules the roost. Fast becoming known as Spain's signature white (Rueda seems the only other region able to make a serious claim), its next challenge is to bring down prices. With the labour intensive pergolas being steadily replaced with more efficient forms of training; and land ownership likely to consolidate (albeit slowly) in the medium term, this could happen. As one importer put it: It's taken Albario ten years to be an overnight success.' But it was ten years well spent.