While the sun-seeking summer crowds are busy heading for the Mediterranean, here’s an even better idea: consider Galicia in northwest Spain. But before setting off, be sure to shed any preconceived notions of the country. Galicia is so different from any other part of the peninsula, you may start to wonder whether you took a wrong turn and fetched up by mistake in Brittany, or somewhere on Ireland’s west coast.
This is Atlantic Spain, sheltering beneath a canopy of scudding clouds, its rocky shores lashed by furious waves, its lush countryside luminous and glistening from the most recent rain shower. It’s a land of pazos, grand manor houses surrounded by vineyards, of hórreos or granaries perched on stone stilts to keep rain and rodents at bay, of seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines, allotments neatly planted with beans, turnip greens and giant cabbages, and hillsides grazed by some of Spain’s finest beef cattle. Galicia ranks as one of the country’s top food and wine destinations, on a par with the Basque country and Catalunya, and the evidence is all around.
Set aside a couple of days to soak up the gentle charms of Santiago de Compostela, wander the rain-splashed, traffic-free streets of the medieval centre and join milling, modern-day pilgrims as they head for the spectacular cathedral. After a glass of Godello in the bar of the famous Hostal dos Reis Católicos across the square, you’ll be all set for a vinous pilgrimage, combining inland Rutas do Viño with the coastal vineyards of Rías Baixas.
From Santiago the toll road to Ourense carves its way through an emerald-green landscape fringed with eucalyptus and gorse, over a succession of sweeping viaducts and south to Ribadavia, capital of the DO Ribeiro region. Here inland, screened from the worst Atlantic squalls by the Sierra del Suido, midday summer temperatures routinely soar into the 30s, saved by blessedly cool nights. Vines are stacked on steep, well-drained, granitic terraces above the rivers, and equipped with drip-irrigation systems to combat water stress.
Cistercian monks laid the foundations of quality wine-growing in Ribeiro in the Middle Ages and the region’s renown grew steadily over centuries. After the disastrous 19th-century troika of oidium, mildew and phylloxera, Ribeiro subsided into a dismal backwater, planting imported high-yielding varieties (Palomino, of sherry fame, was a favourite) and sacrificing all for quantity. Come the 1990s, a few visionaries woke again to its potential as a fine wine region, reclaiming terraces and vineyards and determined to recover its lost reputation for quality.
Among these were the González Vázquez family, owners of Casal de Armán, a 20-hectare estate whose gorgeous casa rural, left, makes a supremely comfortable perch for Ribeiro explorations. The whole operation – winery, guesthouse and restaurant – is staffed by family members, generous and attentive hosts who offer a range of wine-related activities. After a strenuous day exploring, settle down here to a plate of garlicky zamburiñas (queen scallops) followed by roast kid, with a bottle of Finca Misenhora or Finca Os Loureiros, their classy, single-vineyard whites in which the straw-gold, peachy Treixadura plays a starring role.
To get a sense of how Ribeiro is on the move and the level of investment involved, visit nearby Finca Viñoa high above the River Avia. The owners of this newly established estate, Grandes Pagos, have indulged in some serious earthmoving, carving terraces into the granite hillside streaked with seams of schist, and planting with Ribeiro’s four signature grapes (Treixadura, Albariño, Godello and Loureira) for their single, intensely satisfying white blend.
Close by is Coto de Gomaríz, a 28-hectare estate owned by the Carreiro family, who have spent 30 years resurrecting historic sites, acquiring new plots, restoring swathes of terracing and, lately, adopting biodynamic practices – a singular challenge in Galicia’s predominantly cool, damp climate. Traditionally, explains export manager Inma Pazos, red wines outnumbered whites in Ribeiro. Today, while fragrant, full-bodied whites rule the roost (their old-vine, lightly oaked Coto de Gomaríz Colleita Seleccionada is exemplary), the estate is hoisting the red flag again with a range of new-wave, Atlantic-inflected blends.
Ramón do Casar is the new kid on Ribeiro’s block, with just eight hectares of Treixadura, Albariño and Godello planted on slopes above the River Miño. This family venture (opened July 2014) tells a familiar Galician story of hardship and emigration. In 1955 Ramón departed for Venezuela where he founded a bakery business. It prospered, and all his remittances were invested in prime plots of land back home. In 2000 the vineyard was planted and 2013 saw the first bottlings: a monovarietal Treixadura and a blend, whose labels, above, are reproductions of the original postcards exchanged between the exiled Ramón and his bride-to-be.
From Ribeiro to the southernmost point of Rías Baixas, it’s about an hour and a half along the sinuous road beside the River Miño, which for most of the way forms the border with Portugal. Just inland from the pastel-painted port of A Guarda is Quinta de Couselo, an elegant stone pazo or manor house, watched over by a pair of parasol pines. These illustrate the labels of their plump, aromatic blends Quinta de Couselo and Turonia, where the angularity of Albariño is fleshed out by discreet amounts of Loureira and Treixadura. As is typical in Rías Baixas, with precipitation double that of inland vineyards, vines here scramble high on pergolas suspended between chunky, head-high granite posts, as if gathering up their skirts to keep them out of the rain and mud.
Then it’s a leisurely amble north, across the Vigo estuary with its countless mussel rafts, past Pontevedra (schedule a coffee stop in the old town) and west into the heart of Rías Baixas. Albariño rules here: today it represents fully 96% of all grapes harvested in DO Rías Baixas. Yet total domination by this voguish grape was not always the case, explains Eugenio Zárate of the eponymous bodega just south of Cambados, self-styled capital of Albariño. He recalls a time when the region’s everyday tipple was a pale, sharp red from tough local varieties Espadeiro, Caiño and Loureira tinto. Albariño was made only in tiny quantities and reserved for honoured guests and special occasions. For a crash course in this racy, zesty wine, start with the charming, entry-level Albariño Zárate before graduating to the elegant complexity of single-vineyard El Palomar, grown on ungrafted centenarian vines trained in traditional style along pergolas.
Further south near Meaño is Paco & Lola a large, super-modern co-operative that’s well set up for visitors. One of Galicia’s distinguishing features is the diminutive size of its vineyard plots, fragmented by multiple inheritances. Paco & Lola was founded in 2006 to assemble over 400 small producers, giving them the technological means to raise overall quality and the marketing pizzazz to sell large volumes of decent wine, principally Albariño – look out for the distinctive black-and-white polka dot labels.
Wrap up your vinous visit at Pazo Baión, a beyond-gorgeous 30-hectare property half an hour from Santiago, whose origins go back to the 16th century. After a succession of owners, including most recently an Argentine drug baron operating off the coast of Galicia, it was bought at auction by the Condes de Albarei group. Of all the wineries visited, this is the most ambitious in terms of wine tourism, with guided visits to the vineyards and spanking-new cellars, culminating in a tasting of premium single-vineyard Albariños in the superb, architect-designed tasting room.
24 hours in Galicia – from Santiago to Rías Baixas
If you can spare only a short time in Galicia (which would be a dreadful mistake), plan on a day in the Rías Baixas. From your base at the serene and beautiful Hotel A Quinta da Auga in Santiago, exit the Pontevedra motorway at Padrón (home of the eponymous peppers) and continue on the country road along the beautiful Ría de Arousa as far as Vilagarcía. Visit the house and gardens of Pazo de Rubiánes, and make a note to return in the mild Galician winter, when over 4000 camellias burst into bloom.
Book a pre-lunch visit and tasting at Pazo Señorans, a ravishing property complete with superb hórreo (granary), pictured right, private chapel and cypress trees, all necessary components to qualify as a proper pazo or manor house. Then (after you’ve made sure to book), head to Restaurante Yayo Daporta in Cambados for meal to remember by one of Galicia’s rising stars. Select your wine(s) from the walk-in, glass-walled, air-conditioned cellar in a corner of the dining room or take advice from Yayo’s sister on wine pairings for your menu.
In the afternoon, take a digestive wander through the picturesque old town of Cambados, and look in on Palacio de Fefiñanes on the eponymous square. After an early evening visit to Zárate, a small and warmly welcoming family-owned winery close to Cambados, proceed to Quinta de San Amaro in Meaño in time for a pre-dinner Albariño in the glassed-in hórreo (grain store), now a sitting room/library, followed by light supper from locally sourced ingredients in the luminous dining room (above) with wraparound windows.
[A version of this article ran in the May edition of Decanter]