The albariño grape in 10 keys

The Albariño grape is native to Galicia


The albariño grape variety has been cultivated in the Rías Baixas for thousands of years to produce fruity wines that stand out for their freshness

«Albariño is not drunk to forget, but to remember». Or so believed Álvaro Cunqueiro, one of the great Galician novelists of the 20th century and a lover of wines made from the Albariño grape variety. This great Galician writer was an extraordinary ambassador of the albariño grape before it became a variety applauded and valued worldwide.

Cunqueiro would be perplexed to find that, today, it is possible to drink a Rías Baixas made solely and exclusively from the Albariño grape anywhere in the world, from Tokyo to Los Angeles.

Perhaps he would be less pleased to find that his mythological theories about the origin of the albariño grape have been disproved by scientific research.

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that the last few decades have brought about a real revolution in the cultivation of a grape variety with thousands of years of history behind it.

For this reason, we will now look at the history, characteristics and future of the Albariño grape.

Myths and legends about its origin

There are few things we humans like more than making up stories and passing them on from generation to generation. Thanks to this, the tremendous mythological tales of classical Greece have been able to reach our days. The Albariño grape has not escaped this human impulse. In fact, over the years, several stories have been built around its origin.

The most famous of them all claims that the Albariño grape arrived in Galicia in the 12th century from the banks of the Rhine. Its bearer was a monk from the Order of Cluny who brought the albariño vine to the monastery of Armenteira, where he planted the first albariño grape vines.

Álvaro Cunqueiro told a similar story, but the author argued that the origin of the albariño grape was not to be found in the Order of Cluny but in the Cistercian Order. The monastic theories were fuelled, to a large extent, by the explosion of the Camino de Santiago as a trade route and the importance of the monks in its protection and exploitation.

But it was not only the monks who were the protagonists of the myths about Albariño. Another of the legends about the albariño grape held that its arrival in the Rías Baixas had taken place a century earlier, at the hand of Raymond of Burgundy, consort of Urraca of Castile, who regularly travelled to Caldas de Reis for its thermal waters.

For years, the origin of the Albariño grape was also thought to be in Greece, from where it was brought to Galicia by English sailors, and it was even suggested that this variety could have come from the Phoenicians.

However, in 2020, a discovery was made public that changed the history of the albariño grape forever: seeds dated between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD were found that bear an enormous similarity to today’s albariño, which is why scientists consider them to be direct ancestors of the albariño grape grown today.


An autochthonous variety domesticated (and hybridised?) in Gallaecia

The seeds were discovered in O Areal, an area of Vigo where, in Roman times, there was an imposing salt mine from which salt was exported to the entire Roman Empire.

This discovery proves that the Albariño grape already existed in Gallaecia. Moreover, its similarity to the current grape and the preponderance of this grape throughout the Rías Baixas leads the researchers to suppose that it is not an imported variety:

  • It is not a variety imported from other Roman Empire regions, but the vines were wild in the Rías Baixas and the north of Portugal.
  • The wild variety was domesticated in Gallaecia thanks to the knowledge of the Romans, pioneers in vine cultivation and winemaking.
  • That, perhaps, the Romans were able to hybridise the native vines with others from different regions of the Empire that had already demonstrated a good level of productivity in their areas of origin.

Be that as it may, the analysis of the seeds shows that the Albariño grape was already being cultivated 2000 years ago in the Rías Baixas and, therefore, extends the history of wine in Galicia to Roman times.

The albariño grape stands out for its small and semi-split clusters

The importance of pazos and monasteries

If the legends about the Albariño grape show us anything, monasteries were crucial for cultivating vines and making wine for centuries.

Historians have confirmed that vine cultivation was encouraged throughout the Middle Ages and during the Modern Age by monasteries, castles and pazos, such as Pazo Baión.

Moreover, while small landowners devoted themselves to red grapes, white grapes such as Albariño were grown in the monasteries and pazos. This was mainly because it was believed that white wines were more refined than red wines, which formed part of the peasants’ essential diet. Moreover, the albariño grape was very aromatic, which made it possible to produce wines with an intense varietal perfume.

At the end of the 15th century, the wine trade in Pontevedra accounted for 40% of the city’s tax revenue. Galician wines were marketed on the peninsula and travelled north to be sold in England, Brittany and Flanders.

Even in times of crisis, such as the concatenation of vine plagues that occurred in the 19th century, the monasteries and pazos played a fundamental role, protecting native varieties such as the albariño grape and implementing innovative techniques for the care of the vines, the fight against diseases and the production of high value wines.

Essential characteristics of the albariño grapevine and grapes

What are the vines that produce the albariño variety like? What characteristics can we highlight?

  1. The vines are vigorous and have a high fertility in terms of buds. This means that these vines adapt well to long pruning and high training systems, so vine training is the most common in albariño grape vineyards.
  2. These vines are sensitive to mildew, so continuous work must be carried out to prevent the appearance of this disease, which can affect the vines and the grapes.
  3. Its ideal climate is that of the Rías Baixas: mild temperatures thanks to the proximity of the sea, abundant rainfall and sunny conditions.
  4. The soil must be sandy, slightly acidic and derived from granitic rocks.

As for the characteristics of the Albariño grape, we can highlight:

  • The bunches are small and semi-loose.
  • The grapes are medium-sized with an oval shape.
  • The berries have a pruina layer that facilitates the retention of the yeasts that play an essential role in the fermentation of the must.
  • The colour of the grapes ranges from green to yellow.
  • The skin of the berries is of medium thickness, while the flesh is juicy.
  • The skins of the Albariño grape contain a large amount of aromas, which is why cold pre-fermentative macerations are carried out when making the wines.
  • Its richness in acids is much higher than other varieties, and its sugar level is excellent.

All these characteristics have led wine experts to consider the Albariño grape as the highest quality white grape variety on the national scene and place it as a variety of enormous prestige worldwide.

The albariño grape is native to the Rías Baixas and the north of Portugal

The Rías Baixas, the home of the albariño grape

The albariño grape is mainly grown in today’s territory, making up the Rías Baixas Designation of Origin. 95% of the white grapes harvested in the DO vineyards are albariño, although there are other native grapes such as treixadura, loureira or caíño blanco.

The Rías Baixas DO is divided into five sub-zones:

  • Val do Salnés. This is the largest sub-zone of the DO and where the most significant volume of Albariño grape production in the world is concentrated.
  • Condado do Tea.
  • O Rosal
  • Ribeira do Ulla
  • Soutomaior.

In 2023, almost 45 million kilos of grapes were harvested in the entire DO Rías Baixas.

And what about the north of Portugal, on the other side of the Miño? Is the Albariño grape also grown?

Albariño grape or alvarinho?

In the region of Melgaço and Monçao, separated from Galicia by the Miño, the Albariño grape is also grown. However, in Portugal it is known as alvarinho.

If in Galicia we have the DO Rías Baixas, in Portuguese territory, the albariño variety is grown in the DO Vinho Verde, whose northernmost sub-area is precisely the region of Melgaço and Monçao. However, while in DO Rías Baixas albariño is the undisputed queen variety, in DO Vinho Verde, it is only predominant in Melgaço and Monçao.

In Monçao, the annual Feira do Alvarinho is held, bringing thousands of people together to taste the alvarinhos produced in this area of the Miño valley. It is a celebration that reminds us of the Festa do Albariño that takes place in Cambados, the capital of O Salnés.

What is the difference between Galician albariños and Portuguese alvarinhos? Although the grape variety is the same, slight differences are associated with the climate, the terroir and the vine training system.

What are Albariño wines like?

Before we describe the main characteristics of the Albariño grape, now we must focus on what the single-varietal Albariño wines are like, that is to say, those in which only this variety is used:

  • They have a yellow colour with golden and, in some cases, greenish tones.
  • They have an intense varietal perfume due to the aromatic power of the Albariño grape.
  • They are fruity, citric and floral.
  • They have great personality and body.
  • They are balanced and have a notable acidity.
  • They are honeyed, unctuous and persistent.

These characteristics have been critical to the consolidation of Rías Baixas in recent decades as one of the most prized white wines by wine lovers worldwide.

Thus, nowadays, albariños rub shoulders with chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

The albariño grape is not only grown in Rías Baixas

The albariño grape is now global

Although the albariño grape originates from the Rías Baixas and the most significant production of this grape is concentrated in this designation of origin, it is true that the variety is grown in other Galician regions, such as Ribeiro or Ribeira Sacra. Thus, both in these designations of origin and in the Rías Baixas itself, we can find coupages that combine albariño with loureira, treixadura or godello.

Beyond the presence of the albariño grape in Galicia and northern Portugal, the fact is that the prestige of this variety has led to albariño vines being planted worldwide. Several Spanish wineries have introduced albariño in their vineyards, but so have wineries in the most important wine regions of the planet, such as Bordeaux in France or Monterey in California.

Not to mention that Albariño vines can also be found tens of thousands of kilometres away in Chile, Argentina, Australia or New Zealand.

The fact that the albariño vine and grape have been able to travel worldwide is only possible thanks to its immense capacity to adapt to different climates and terrains.

The future of Albariño

The launch of the Rías Baixas DO at the end of the 1980s brought about a revolution in the cultivation of the albariño grape and in the production of wines using this variety. According to the appellation’s data, in 1975, only 200 hectares in the Rías Baixas were used to grow albariño grapes. Today, there are more than 4,000 hectares, and the DO’s Master Plan foresees that by 2030, up to 5,000 hectares of albariño will be cultivated, capable of producing 50 million kilos of grapes.

Beyond the increase in production, the other keys to the future of Albariño grapes and wines are:

  • Innovation and research to get the most out of the albariño grape, care for the vines, ensure their longevity and make surprising and groundbreaking wines.
  • Sustainability.
  • Internationalisation. Currently, 30% of Rías Baixas wines are exported to countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In the coming years, we will seek to reinforce this internationalisation process by increasing the presence of Albariño wines in other markets.
  • Quality. The consecration of albariños in the wine-growing world is due to their ability to enhance the qualities of the albariño grape. The wineries of the DO Rías Baixas are making an enormous effort to take care of every last detail of the grapes and the winemaking process of their wines.

Rías Baixas is 100% made with albariño grapes harvested from a single property

This commitment to quality and premium wines is evident in Pazo Baión, the only winery in the Rías Baixas DO that makes Albariño single estate wines. In other words, single-varietal wines are produced exclusively from grapes harvested from Pazo Baión’s vineyards.

What does this mean? The winery’s viticulture and oenology teams control every aspect of the life cycle of the vines, including winter pruning, and take continuous care of the grapes from flowering until harvest.

In such a way, the professionals know perfectly the peculiarities of each plot, the needs of each vine, and the characteristics of the grapes that are born from them.

This information is essential to produce three albariños that are pure goldsmith’s work, such as Gran a Gran, Vides de Fontán and Pazo Baión, the Best Young White Wine of Spain in 2024.

In short, the albariño grape is an indigenous Galician variety with a millenary history behind it. It is now at its best, thanks to the advances in technology and scientific innovations. So much so that both albariño vines and DO Rías Baixas wines have been exported halfway around the world, to the delight of wine lovers.

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