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ALBARINO
GRAPES

THE ESSENCE OF THE GALICIAN 
"RIAS BAIXAS"

THREE DISTRICTS

ALBARINO EXTENDS ITS INFLUENCE

THE EIGHTIES: A DECADE OF CHANGE


  The myth and ceremony associated with this grape and its wine and typical of the Galician people that cultivate it probably stem from uncertainty concerning its origin. Although some consider it a native species, several tales IL have arisen about how it was brought to Galicia. The most widely-held theory is that it was brought by the Cluny monks when they settled in the Val do Salnes area to the north of Pontevedra some time during the twelfth century and it is quite likely that the vineyards could have spread along the valley from the Armenteira monastery. Another of the legends goes back even earlier, to the eleventh century, and suggests that the first stocks were brought by Raymond de Burgundy husband of the Castilian queen, Dofia Urraca. The queen was much devoted to taking the thermal waters of Caldas de Reis in Pontevedra.

Whether it was a native Galician plant or whatever its origin, there are records dating from the eighteenth century showing that it was growing at that time in the Rias Baixas and the inland areas between the Ulla and Mifio valleys and even as far as the town of El Ribeiro in the province of Orense.

The natural habitat of this vine is the Atlantic ecosystem and it is under these conditions that it gives the best results, especially in terms of organoleptic quality.

THREE DISTRICTS

Rias Baixas is the name given to the Atlantic coastal areaof southern Galicia, mainly the coast of the province of Pontevedra. The area basically comprises three different types of landscape -flat landsin Salnes, gently sloping valleys in 0 Rosal and slightly more mountainous lands in Condado. These three districts make up what is known as the Rias Baixas D.O. and the Regulating Council is based in Pontevedra, the provincial capital, which lies at an equal distance from each of them.

The Salnos district has the best soils. Its main town is Cambados, an aristocratic, rather grand town much admired by the Galician poet, Ramon Cabanillas (1986-1959). The Albarifio grape likes shallow, sandy soils, preferably slightly acid, although it can also grow in heavier, fresh soilsas long as they are not too moist. The whole province of Pontevedra, except for the most eastern parts, is suitable for growing this species.

The geographer Garcia Ferndndez has written that the rural landscape plays an essential part in local history and must be considered not only from the point of view of space but also over time. This vine has formed part of the Galician landscape for so long that it is undoubtedly tied in with the most deep-rooted sentiments of Galicians.

It grows intermittently all along this green strip of land where the rainfall and hours of sunshine are similar to those in certain Mediterranean areas. The sea keeps the temperatures mild.

The grapes mature on the hillsides and in the valleys. The bunches are small and the grapes spherical or elliptical with a pale, greenish yellow skin. According to Jorge Freijanes, an expert on Galician agriculture, the flavor attributes are already balanced and enticing even in the new berries.

These are delicate grapes that need careful tendering but in Galicia they are positively pampered. If the local growers had always devoted as much time and attention to the preparation of the wine as they have done to the vines, the technological revolution that has taken place over the last decade in this sector would have been much less remarkable and significant.

Although the Albarino stock is vigorous and sends out its shoots early, its hermaphrodite flower grows best from the third bud upwards and on long branches. The traditional method of training the vines over trellises is still used today because the small orbicular leaves and fruits do not flourish if grown too near the often damp soils.

The smooth stocks send out early shoots although maturation is of average duration, except that the lighter the soil the faster it is. Milardet 420-A has been grown on the most fertile and dry soils but the most successful stocks for dry land are the 110 Richter, Castel 196-17and Couderc 161-49, which have gradually ousted the traditional Riparia, Berlandieri and Rupestris stocks. The pH of the soil is slightly acid -between4 and 6.

ALBARINO EXTENDS ITS INFLUENCE

Cultivation of the Albarino variety has shot up over the last decade, as has wine production in this area. It is therefore risky to give figures for this sector, especially because the tiny size of many properties, typical of farms in Galicia, makes it difficult to keep track of domestic production and also because this variety is often grown alongside others in the small vineyards scattered along and around the Salnes valley.

In less than 15 years, the land area growing Albarino has multiplied by ten. Now it is not only the variety producing the best white wines but it is also the most widespread, best known and most popular of the Galicianative vines. Albarino has boosted the market for white wine both within and outside Galicia and has raised its quality standards.

This variety is so much the protagonist in the Atlantic area of Galicia that, when the current geographical area was established, it was based on the Albarino Specific Denomination that previously set the standards for the local white wines, the great majority of which came from the Albarino variety.

Albarino is a quality, pleasant-tasting wine. It varies between pale yellow and golden and average alcohol content is 12 degrees. Its acidity is around 6 g/liter expressed in tartaric acid and the high quantity of sugar in the must makes it a sweet wine.

Albarino wine can continue to boast of its relative scarcity and top quality for two reasons: firstly, because of the nature of the vine itself which does not produce large numbers of grapes and, secondly, because of protectionist regulations which limit production from the grape to a maximum of 65% per kg and only allow a maximum of 10,000 kg to be produced from every hectare (2.471 acres).

The total area with its three districts measures, according to Professor joso Manuel Santos Solla, 675 square kilometers (260 square miles) and has about 155,000 inhabitants. He considers the geographical area should be extended to include the Vigo and Pontevedra "rias" or estuaries.

Santos Solla points out that the parameters for the Salnos and Bajo Mifio areas are fairly uniform and typical of the whole "Rias Baixas" area-annual rainfall of about 1,500 mm, average temperatures of 142C (572F) with no frost and little fluctuation and low rainfall in summer.

The geological substratum comprises granite, gneiss, met sediments and recent deposits so that throughout the area the soils are acid and very permeable.

According to Santos Solla, the only difference between the Cambados area and the area around the river Mifio as it passes through Pontevedra is the "greater abundance of Quaternary formations including limey-clayey marismas, terraces and alluvial-colluvial areas".

THE EIGHTIES: A DECADE OF CHANGE

Ten or fifteen years ago, vines were a secondary crop and wines were produced on a small, family scale. Of the 18,500 vineyards exceeding25 hectares ( 2 acres), 99.9% were privately owned and 99.4% produced lessthan 99 hectoliters. None was able to produce over 25,000 hl and not even50 of them were able to bottle their own wine. The change during the Eighties proved to be quite spectacular. What remains is the tradition and the fact that wine production is mono varietal.

The Salnos area, "the most developed coastal plan in Galicia", earns its living from the occasional orchard, seafood and tourism but especiallyfrom its over 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres) of vineyards comprising one quarter of the province of Pontevedra. The 0 Rosal area has just 500 hectares(1,236 acres) and 0 Condado 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres).

Not only is Albarino the mostly widely grown stock but it is the only one that is steadily increasing. At the close of the Seventies it occupied only 300 hectares (750 acres) and today approaches 1,700 hectares(4,200 acres) and, moreover, it is a variety that develops fast.

Data concerning production are more specific. These grapes are highly appreciated but do not grow in abundance. The crop today reaches only about 70,000 hectoliters, amounting to about 5 million bottles, although prospects are that it will increase by about 50%. The grapes ripen equally well in any of the three districts with just about one week's difference depending on their proximity to the sea. Trellises are used throughout, with the stakes holding the horizontal wires being sometimes of granite and sometimes of wood.

The planting layout is 4 x 2 for a density of between 600 and1,200 stocks (pies) per hectare (2.471 acres).  The quality is exceptional. So too is the price paid for the grapes -about 250 pesetas, or two dollars, per kg. This has helped to develop Albarino cultivation but has also helped to place bottles of Albarino wine towards the top end of the market.

The medium-sized grapes of a greenish-yellow color with a fleshy skin produce a wine that goes from pale yellow (straw, lemon) to golden-it used to be prized for its old gold color. Its characteristic flowery and fruity aromas make it a fresh and cheerful wine that leaves behind a balanced, velvety sensation that is always luxurious.

These are the special features of wines produced exclusively from the Albarino variety and honored annually in the Fiesta del Albarinoin Cambados, a tradition since 1953 when Cambados becomes the center of attraction of the Rias Baixas. On the first Sunday of August, a young couplere presenting the Albarino grapes are submitted to the test of the harvest, their praises are sung and they give back to man and to mother nature what they have received. Thanks are given and the wine is much enjoyed.

 

Guiflermo Campos, a journalist and wine expert, writes forel Correo Gallego and the journals Club de Gourmetsand Vino y Gastronomia. He is also a member o the official tasting panel for the Rias Baixas D.O.

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