There exist some names whose sound is of particular beauty, even though they mean little or nothing to us and may come from languages we even don’t know. Of course, it is always an individual issue as that ‘beauty’ has something to do with our cultural and linguistic background or associations we have with certain name. For me, one of such names is Rías Baixas, pronounced more or less like ‘Ree-ass By-shass’, whereas the ‘x’ is more like the Polish ‘ś’ or the German ‘ch’ in the pronoun ‘ich’ than the ‘sh’.
Rías Baixas is a wine region in Spain, established as a Denominación de Origen (DO) in 1988. It is situated in the very Northwest of the country and has little in common with the Spain of our holidays. A ría is a topographic term describing a type of coastal inlets, a kind of quite shallow fjord. The term is of Galician origin and originally applied to the Atlantic inlets typical to the coast in Spanish Galicia, but rías can be found also in other regions like England or North Island of New Zealand.
I mentioned the Galician language (galego). It’s a Romance language spoken in the country of Lower Rias (i.e., Rías Baixas or Rías Bajas), most related to Portuguese. Madrid has a really colorful country to rule when we consider that after Spanish there are four co-official languages: Aranese, Basque, Catalan with its Valencian variant, and Galician, and further recognized and unrecognized ones which didn’t enjoy the status of co-official languages in their communities.
To see the linguistic map of Spain check: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/jan/19/spain-languages-map-interactive
Such a fascinating cultural patchwork is visible in the world of Spanish wine too. Wine not only makes part of the respective regional culture, history and identity, but also reflects them in its style and taste. However, this is true only if we don’t get a bottle of some ‘globalized’ product from too modern wineries and varieties never grown in the area before. Chardonnay made with scientific precision, in a steel tank with some oak chips thrown inside won’t be an expression of the local culture and most probably can taste pretty the same whether from Italy, California, Australia or Hungary. But in Rías Baixas, there is the magnificent Albariño! This is the same variety like Portugal’s Alvarinho, but Galician whites made from these grapes have very little to do with vinho verde. In the majority of cases, it should be considered as a compliment.
Wines from the region are in my opinion the best whites in Spain. Every time I am looking for them in wine shops in Berlin (generally unsuccessful trials) sellers try to convince me that also a bottle from Rueda might be nice. After having believed them a couple of times and having brought such a substitute home, I need to say that they cannot compete in my house with whites from Rías Baixas, at least until someone makes me know some great Rueda white…
I don’t remember to have ever drunk bad wine from this Galician DO. Wines from Rías Baixas are either great or just good. No other options! Well, probably it is my style of wine and I got a little bit uncritical 🙂 Interestingly, these wines remained unknown outside of the region of their origin until the 1990s. Most producers are also small and don’t bring on the market enough cases to export them. Their creations land on Spanish tables, private ones or in good restaurants.
All the great Albariños I had were parts of awesome meals in good restaurants of Madrid and Barcelona. Unfortunately this happened in the times when I wasn’t maintaining a register of wines I liked. So, the first ones which came on the list are convenient supermarket wines (try to find an Albariño in a German supermarket!) drunk with friends during my Easter holidays 2011:
Santeiro, Albariño Cosecha 2009, Pazo de Señoráns S.L.
Abadia do Seixo, Albariño 2009, Bodegas Pazo de Villarei
Especially the second one proved to be a cheerful and charming company during that fresh and rainy spring in Andalucía.
The word ‘pazo’, to be found on the labels of each wine mentioned above, is a Galician word which means as much as ‘manor house’, it is a kind of traditional countryside residence. For me pazos, with their grey stonewalls amidst impressively rich green scenery, resemble more Scottish or English architecture than what I know from Catalonia, Andalucía or Castile.
Albariños are also worth of spending more, let’s say between $20 and $30 per bottle. But if you want to enjoy them with really tasty seafood where the hills surrounding you still hide many Celtic mysteries, go to Galicia… or at least take a good bottle to Scotland or Wales 🙂