Vuelta a España 2016: Part One – Galícia: A Trip through Green Spain

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Galícia: Photo by Froaringus; wikimedia commons

Well, the Rio Olympics have come and gone and I, for one, am sad.  Brazil’s happy, lilting national anthem is running through my head on a loop, making me want to samba.  Or learn how to.  Instead of driving me crazy like NBC’s ubiquitous Olympic theme music, this tune makes me joyous, full of the Carioca spirit.  Listen for yourself if you don’t believe me . . . .

NBC’s crazy-quilt of coverage (strung out over a hundred channels) notwithstanding, I truly enjoyed watching America’s finest athletes compete in preliminary heats, semi-final races, and gold-medal bouts, while learning virtually nothing about the sports stars of Other Countries.  Sure, I’m kidding, a little.  It wasn’t all bad.  And truth be told, I miss it.  The Closing Ceremonies and their paean to Brazil’s multi-ethnic culture, left me with a lump in my throat.  (That, and realizing it will be two years before the next Olympic events hit our TV screens.)  But we move on, setting our sights on the next big thing.  For me, that is the Vuelta a España, or the Tour of Spain.  The Vuelta picks up where the Tour de France left off: the world’s best cyclists competing against formidable conditions and each other, this time in Spain.  Mountain stages, sprint finishes, crashes, doping accusations – all the familiar attractions of international cycling.  The 2016 Vuelta has 21 stages, just like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.  All three of the grand tours put the peloton through torture – hailstorms, cross-winds, cobblestones, marauding fans, for example – and feature treacherous climbs into the Alps and Pyrénées, often with precipitous descents.  But this year’s Vuelta is meaner, harder, more exhausting than any other race.  At least in my opinion it is.

Of the 21 stages, there will be one team time trial (Stage One) and one individual time trial (Stage 19) both relatively flat races that will allow the speedsters in the bunch to shine.  And the last day of racing, largely ceremonial, will be another opportunity for the sprinters to stand atop the podium.  But most of the remaining 18 stages involve at least a little climbing; 11 of them have summit finishes, meaning the peloton actually races to the mountain top.  Given the dearth of potential rewards for the sprinters, it’s not surprising that so few of the usual suspects have shown up in Spain for this race.  Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel, Tom Dumoulin, Marcel Kittel?   You’ll have a better chance of finding them on the beaches of Marbella than hauling themselves over the Pyrénées.  Why suffer for three weeks in the mountains for one measly chance at glory on the Gran Vía?

While I will miss the big personalities and the fearless, gladiator-worthy antics of the group sprint finishes this year, I say, Bring on the Climbers!  Alberto Contador is back.  So is Chris Froome.  And Valverde, Vangarderen, and Quintana, oh my!  I’ll be on the edge of my seat as those mountains loom closer, savoring every minute of the battle for the red jersey.  Oh, and I will be enjoying some totally delicious Spanish wine in the process!  Week One takes us to the northwestern tip of the Iberian peninsula to Galícia, sandwiched between Portugal to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west.  Do you remember that skit from Sesame Street, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others?”  Well, in comparison to the other regions of Spain, that’s Galícia.

 

Galícia – The Other Spain

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Ancient hórreo: photo by Bjorn Torissen, http:/bjornfree.com

Sure, you’ve been to Barcelona and embraced the Catalan culture, with its Gaudí architecture and cooler than thou tapas bars.  You might have trod the streets of Madrid, stopping by the Museo del Prado to visit a Goya portrait or two.  And many of us have followed temptation to Andalucía, hearing the staccato rhythms of Flamenco in our hearts.  But I’m betting only a few of us have inhaled the fresh Atlantic air of Northwest Spain, a place that resembles no other part of the country.  It’s green!  And its roots trace back to the Celts, known here as Gallaeci, who left behind evidence of their culture (yes, there are bagpipes) but not their written words.  Celtic was a spoken language that had no written counterpart, leaving little behind for linguistic scholars to study.  In fact, the local population speaks a dialect called Gallego, which closely resembles Portuguese.  Not surprising since Galícia occupies the far northwest corner of Spain, just above Portugal; much closer geographically and culturally to that country than to most of the rest of Spain.  Perhaps the most striking reminders of Galícia’s Celtic past are the unique cabins called hórreos that dot the landscape.  Sturdy structures made of wood and stone, hórreos served as granaries and were constructed atop granite pillars to keep the grain safe from hungry rodents looking for a snack.  Testament to their durability, some of these rectangular silos date back to the 15th century.

If you’re a cycling fan and have watched the first few days of the Vuelta a España, or Tour of Spain, you’ve had a birds-eye seat to some of the most striking scenery the country has to offer.  The first four stages of this year’s race cover Galícia, otherwise known as Green Spain.  For wine lovers that means the regions of Rías Baixas, famous for the white grape Albariño; Ribeira Sacra, which makes heavenly white wines from Godello and lip-smacking reds from Mencía; and Ribeiro, also focused on white wines made from Albariño and other indigenous grapes like Loureira and Treixadura.

We’ll get to the wine in a minute, but first a condensed history lesson on this fascinating area.  While the Celts were the original settlers of Northwest Spain, this region played host to many cultures over the centuries:  Romans, Swabians, Visigoths, and Moors passed through Galícia before it was annexed into the Kingdom of Asturias  in the ninth century.  In the next 200 years, the local town of Santiago de Compostela would draw thousands of religious pilgrims each year to the shrine of St. James.  The route they traveled, always on foot, became known as the Camino de Santiago, and is still one of Spain’s most-visited tourist spots.  Around the time Columbus was making his way toward the new world, the entire region of Galícia became part of Spain.  It may have been brought into the massive and powerful Castilian tent, but until recently Galícia remained physically, economically, and culturally apart.  And that affected how its wines were produced, sold, and appreciated.  What Happens in Galícia, Stays in Galícia might have made an excellent slogan for winemakers, even 15 years ago.  Lucky for us, things have changed, thanks to a region known as Rías Baixas.

 

The Wines of Rías  Baixas

As we learned earlier, nothing about this region would remind you of the rest of Spain.  Its brilliant green pine forests cover the river valleys and rolling hills, sometimes right next to thickets of eucalyptus trees or tropical palms.  Magnificent estuaries (rías) slice their way through 1,000-foot black granite cliffs, falling as gracefully into the Atlantic as a prima ballerina lands in an arabesque.  The quiet towns that line the coastal ridges look like they could be in Ireland, Scotland, or Scandinavia.  It really is a whole different Spain.

Grapes grown in Galícia are different, too, from those cultivated elsewhere.  The whites, made most frequently from Albariño, are aromatic and floral, and strike that perfect balance between fruit and minerality.  Compared to the super-lean, crisp wines made in other regions, Galícian white wines have a bit more weight to them; some are even aged in oak, giving them additional complexity.  If you’re a lover of Viognier, these wines are for you!

Albarino Grapes

Albariño suits this environment well, hiding behind a thick skin that protects it from the ravages of mildew, always a concern in maritime climates.  Soils are granite and, in addition to Albariño, which accounts for 90% of production, five other white grapes are permitted:  Godello, Loureiro, Torrontes, Caiño Blanco, and Treixadura.   Although not much red wine is made here, six red grapes may be grown, among them Caiño Tinto, Mencia, and Espadeiro.

A perfect match for the climate it may be, but Albariño is a relatively recent phenomenon in Galícia.  After the phylloxera epidemic laid waste to the vineyards of Spain, farmers replanted their vineyards with Palomino, practically synonymous with the world-famous wines of Jerez.  Hoping to cash in on the demand for fortified wines made in the south of Spain, growers overlooked the grape’s fundamental lack of suitability to the region.  Albariño’s fortunes began to rise in the 1970s, when producers were encouraged to reclaim native varieties and given incentives to invest in modern winemaking equipment.  This charge toward the future continued after Spain joined the European Union, a change which fostered the dissemination of modern techniques and brought even more robust agricultural subsidies for growers.  Its bright flavors of apricot and peach are receptive to light oak treatment and result in a wine of medium body that smells like the beach and tastes like sunshine.  Not hard to imagine then, that demand often outweighs supply, often making them more expensive than other Spanish white wines.  (Cost be damned, is what I say!  These wines are worth it!)

Today, Rías Baixas Albariño is grown in five delimited subzones:

Val do Salnés:  the original or classic vineyard area, it is also the coolest and dampest of the zones.  Jancis Robinson labels wines from Val do Salnes as the “purest” expression of Rías Baixas Albariño.

O Rosal:  just across the border from Portugal, this is Rías Baixas’s southernmost outpost, with hillside vineyards that take full advantage of the sunnier and warmer climate.  Wines tend to show less acidity here than in other zones.

Condado do Tea:  situated to the east of the other zones, this is the warmest of all and is known for the power and structure of its wines.

Ribeiro do Ulla:  located just south of Santiago de Compostela, this is the newest and largest vineyard zone.

Soutomaior:  the smallest subzone, this area makes much less wine than the other zones.

 

Wines for Seafood    Albarino Bottle

Albariño makes a great aperitif; but it’s also a natural match for the region’s bounty of fresh seafood.  Galícia is literally swimming in fish: its rivers and estuaries and the Atlantic Ocean provide everything from shellfish and crustaceans to sardines and cod.  However, there is one creature that seems to define Galícian cuisine.  Percebes, or goose-foot barnacles, if you want to get really descriptive, are a local specialty.  They look like enormous, ugly clams.  People tend to love them or hate them, especially given the amount of work involved in extricating the delectable critters from their shells.  Hey, if they’re not your thing, belly up to the seafood buffet and pick something else.  Galícia truly has something for everyone.

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Percebes Photo by Tom Page

So, while you’re catching up on the Vuelta or trying to forget about the Olympics, or whatever occupies your time in the last few days of summer, pour yourself a glass of Albariño.  Even if you’re in the kitchen writing out the weekly grocery list you’ll feel like you’re on a tall cliff overlooking the Atlantic.  I swear, you will!

 

Please look for my next post, Green Spain – Part Two:  The Wines of Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Valdeorras, and Monterrei.  We’ll discuss the other DOs of Galícia and get to know some really delicious red wines that will totally tickle your fancy.  See you next time!

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