Badass Sommelier: Spain, Rías Baixas And Albariño

Dan travels to Spain for some of the best wine on earth.

We already know California’s wine is famous. And we’ve talked quite a bit about France, from Burgundy to Bordeaux to Champagne, because how could you not. France is the backbone of the wine industry.

Italy, with its thousands of native grapes and long history of winemaking, is likewise highly regarded. So too is Germany, home to some of the very best white wines in the world. But do you know what never gets its due?

Spanish wine never gets its due.

La Gran Historia del Vino Español.

Spain is smaller than Texas, but they have more vines planted than anywhere else in the world. There are 4.5 million acres under vine in Spain. Four and a half million. So this is a country that has had a little bit of practice.

Going back a few centuries, even. The Romans were making wine in Iberia, and Iberian wine was considered to be the finest in the empire. They took Spain’s native Garnacha north to France, to Provence, where the grape (here called Grenache) was and is used for high quality Rosés, as well as the red wines across the south from the noble Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the honest table wines of Pays d’Oc.

After the fall of Rome, Spain was invaded by wave upon wave of barbaric tribes. It pretty much became Mad Max land until the Moors arrived in the 8th century. Winemaking in the country continued to flourish between then and the end of the Reconquista*  in the late 1400s. It was during this time that Spanish wine, and particularly Sherry, became popular throughout the British empire.

And as Spain extended its influence in the New World, Spanish missionaries continued their winemaking traditions. We can thank Spain for planting the seeds of this country’s wine culture**.

But Spain began to lag behind with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, with really only Britain’s fondness for sack (Sherry) keeping the wine industry afloat until the mid-1800s when phylloxera swept across Europe.

This fucking guy.

Many French winemakers travelled oversees to the New World, but a great number travelled to Spain and took their expertise with them. The nasty sapsucker did finally reach Spain’s vineyards, but it was shortly before a response to the pest was discovered (grafting European vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock). So Spain lucked out there.

Part of the lasting impact left by the expatriate French winemakers became evident in 1932, when Spain adopted the Denominacion de Origen system of governing the country’s viticultural regions. The DO is based on the French AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée), which is rooted in the importance of terroir. Every winemaking region in the world has a version of this system, whether it’s our American Viticultural Areas or Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and they are all based on the French AOC.

Spain’s DO, though, is kind of its own thing. There is no viticultural region that is as strictly policed as Spain. Each appellation has its own governing body, and the idea is to ensure that every wine, regardless of relative quality, meets a standard that the region adheres to.

What this boils down do is that Rioja will always taste like Rioja, though some Rioja will taste better than others.

The DO system is so heavily regulated that every bottle of wine approved by an appellation’s Consejo Regulador (essentially a governing body) will have a label on the back with all of the information you could want.

At minimum, this label (which is independent of the producer’s label) will let you know exactly where the wine is from, and the quality you can expect.

The DO system is one I am particularly fond of because it encourages clarity. Wine can feel unnecessarily complicated at times, even exclusionary, and I have seen wine labels that are convoluted to the point of becoming incomprehensible. This week I tasted a wine that was delicious and vibrant and perfect for the summer months, but I refused to buy it because I couldn’t figure out who was making it and where the hell it was from. How am I going to put that into your hands?

Since the 1930s, Spain has embraced modernity and new technologies in equal measure, and has consistently produced some of the best wines available anywhere.

But I can understand why Spanish wine has remained on the fringes. Spain is a country full of grapes that nobody has heard of, and that don’t grow anywhere else in the world. And honestly, I kind of selfishly hope it stays that way? I like being able to buy something like the Celler Piñol Ludovicus (if you find this, drink this) for less than $15 and know that I’m getting a wine that drinks like it’s worth twice that much.

And this time of year I particularly love heading to the north of Spain, and specifically to Rías Baixas, for some truly exceptional white wines.

Albariño Para Refrescar.

Rías Baixas in the northwest of Spain (just north of Portugal, in fact) is part of Galicia, and is home to Spain’s great white wine.

Albariño made its way to Spain in the 12th century, piggybacking with the Cistercian monks who trekked across Europe. The grape is believed to be a cousin of Germany’s Riesling, and this makes sense as the two share many similarities. Lively white fruit is always present here, especially apricot, and also a bracing and vibrant acidity. But Rías Baixas is much warmer than the Rhine, and the region is known for having soft, sandy soils that feed the vine a completely different set of nutrients.

This is a light, cheerful wine, with lots of floral fruit and a crisp and refreshing style. One of the reasons I like it so much during the summer is that it tends to be relatively low in alcohol (clocking in at about 11 or 12%), which makes it perfect for a long, slow, boozy afternoon.

It is also absolutely perfect for summertime food. Treat it like lager, used to refresh the palate after a big bite of chili or barbecue, and it will always do you good.

Stop somewhere and pick up a bottle on your way home. Look for the youngest vintage you can find (you want all that vibrant, youthful acidity), and look for that little back label I mentioned. Then invite some friends over and while away a lazy Sunday afternoon. You won’t be disappointed.

*Christian states reconquering Spain from Islamic rule. Remember the fun bits of Kingdom of Heaven? It was kind of like that.

**Though this may have worked a little too well. The rapid growth of wine industries in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America was actually detrimental to the Spanish crown, which had grown dependent on exporting European wines to the New World. King Phillip III would eventually outlaw winemaking in the New World, which was part of what lead to the eventual independence from Spanish rule. The lesson here, would-be world conquerors, is don’t try and take people’s booze away.