Susan Gough Henley takes us on a wine tour of Galicia, Spain's seafood capital.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to Galicia. Most end their journey at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the region’s capital, which many believe to be the final resting place of the apostle Saint James. Turns out, this happens to be the ideal place for wine and food loving pilgrims to begin their journey into this tucked-away corner of north-western Spain.
Forget your preconceptions of a dry and parched landscape. With its windswept coastline, fjord-like river estuaries, fishing ports, lush green hillsides, and clumps of hydrangeas everywhere, Galicia looks more like Wales or Brittany and, indeed, it shares some of their Celtic heritage.
IT’S NOT ONLY THE SEAFOOD CAPITAL of Spain and a rich agricultural region, but it’s also home to five distinctive DO (Denominación de Origen) wine regions. Vines were introduced by the Romans, nurtured by monks in the Middle Ages and, after the scourge of phylloxera, mass emigration to the Americas and years under the Franco dictatorship when high-volume, low-quality wines were prioritised, Galicia is now experiencing a renaissance of its indigenous grape varieties, which thrive on its granite and schist soils.
At the top of the list are its crisp, acidic albariño white wines, which have been taking the world by storm. Albariño is the domain of DO Rias Baixas, which is spread across five non-contiguous subregions that lie mainly along the Atlantic Coast. It’s a charming area to explore, with undulating vineyards, seaside villages, and the pretty towns of Pontevedra and Cambados (the self-styled capital of albariño) offering great restaurants and wine bars.
Slightly inland is DO Ribeiro, where the straw-gold peachy treixadura reins. DO Ribeira Sacra is home to the spectacular vertiginous terraces of red wine grapes, which are mainly mencía but also brancellao and merenzao (called bastardio in Portugal and trousseau in the Jura). Further inland again, DO Valdeorras is making a name for itself with distinctive, medium-bodied godello (which, in the right hands, has been compared to Burgundian chardonnay). The fifth DO, Monterrei, is so small we’re not covering it here. ☞
☞ START YOUR ADVENTURES at taberna Abastos 2.0 in Santiago’s old quarter with sea bass and Galician red-pepper empanadas before the 45-minute drive south into the Salnés Valley in the heart of Rias Baixas. You’ll pass grand manor houses with their granite granaries (hórreos) perched on stone stilts, as well as tiny vineyard plots with their unique vine trellises. Here, albariño vines are trained across head-high granite pergolas so sea breezes can aerate the vines after the frequent rains from the Atlantic Ocean.
Family-owned Pazo Señorans is a good place to start your albariño journey. Marisol Bueno, the family matriarch, was the first president of the Rias Baixas DO for 21 years and her winemaker Ana Quintela has been making wines here since 1991. Take a guided tour to learn about their winemaking philosophy, and visit the exquisite pazo, chapel and gardens before tasting their elegant bottle-aged albariño and Galician aguardiente digestifs.
One of Galicia’s finest winemakers is Eulogio Pomares, who not only makes albariño and red wines from 12 different vineyard parcels at Zárate, his small family-owned winery in Rias
Baixas, but is also growing grapes and making wines in Ribeira Sacra. Make an appointment to learn about his terroir-driven philosophy and taste his single-vineyard El Palomar Albariño from 100-year-old vines.
The colourful Quinta de San Amaro country inn, with pool and restaurant overlooking the vines, makes a great base for your
Rias Baixas meanderings. Enjoy a meal nearby at the informal Lagüiña lieux-dit, owned by former Mugaritz sommelier
Eduardo Camiña Ucha. This is the place to savour wines from tiny bodegas, such as Luis Anxo’s A Torna Dos Pasás Escolma red wine from DO Ribeiro, made from a field blend of indigenous grapes, alongside inspired preparations of razor clams and slow-cooked beef.
Not far away, A Curva wine bar, owned by passionate Galician oenophile Miguel Anxo Besada, is a must-visit in the seaside town of Portonovo. Let him guide you with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Galician wines to enjoy alongside octopus, calamari, and more.
MANY GRAPE GROWERS have joined forces to form winery cooperatives and several have English-language tours. Bodegas Martín Códax offers an informative winemaking facility tour followed by an albariño and seafood tapas tasting in a glassenclosed wine bar, which overlooks the vineyards all the way to the sea. You can also book tours and tastings at Pazo Baión, a grand estate replete with castle, dovecote and winery in a former dairy.
Make time to explore the pedestrian-only old quarter of Pontevedra, chock full of bars and restaurants. Casa Fidel O'Pulpeiro is the spot for octopus, a Galician favourite, while O Souto is a delightful vinoteca serving local fare alongside carefully created wines from small producers. For a splurge, enjoy refined Galician dishes at Michelin-starred Casa Solla, with views across the vineyards.
In Cambados, head to Vinoteca Ribeira de Fefiñáns, with its excellent selection of Galician wines, which you can taste alongside seafood tapas, much of which has been collected on the seashore out front. Dinner should be at Taberna do Trasno, also Michelin-starred, with its sublime oysters, scallops, and Galician beef with marrow.
HEADING INLAND NOW, you’ll come to DO Ribeiro, whose terraced vineyards rise above the Miño River, screened from the worst Atlantic squalls by the Sierra del Suido mountains. This is the home of savoury white treixadura, whose aromatics are often improved with godello and albariño, as well as other indigenous varieties such as loureiro, torrontés and lado.