Atlantic Spain 

As might be expected, wines made across Spain’s Atlantic regions, both whites and reds, tend to be cool and restrained, strongly reflecting the ocean-influenced climate. They are quite unlike their lush, ripe southern cousins, which mostly come from vineyards that are among the hottest, driest and sunniest in Europe. Conditions along Spain’s Atlantic coast often bear striking similarity to those of southern England and the wines reflect it.

Aside from Santiago de Compostela, with its stunning cathedral and amazing seafood; Bilbao, which has only recently attracted international visitors thanks to its deservedly hyped Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum; and San Sebastian, with its insane food scene, northern Spain is pretty much a wasteland of tourist destinations, much less of the vinous sort. Northwest Spain in particular has never been a great draw for American wine tourists. Not many Yanks, including those in the wine trade who have visited Rioja multiple times, have ever made the trek to Galicia, which is home to Rías Baixas, Monterrei, Ribeira Sacra, Ribeiro and Valdeorras. Even fewer have explored the León region, home to Bierzo, which is the most famous and best Denominación de Origen in northwest Spain for red wines.

Albariño is the most widely planted variety in Rías Baixas

Albariño and Rías Baixas: Spain’s Great White Hope?

The wines of Rías Baixas, which are overwhelmingly white and made from the Albariño variety (known as Alvarinho in Portugal, where it is commonly overcropped and used to make an ocean of mostly anonymous, easy-drinking Vinho Verde), have captured the attention of American wine lovers and professionals in a remarkably short span of time. It’s not hard to see why as the best examples are concentrated and vibrant, with intense, mineral-drenched citrus fruit character and alluring floral overtones. And the overall winemaking standard in the region is as high as any that I know in Spain. Rarely do the wines see any oak (and it’s seldom new when they do), which means that fans of German, Alsace and Loire Valley white wines will find plenty to love here. Judging by the steady increase in the availability and sales of these wines in the U.S., they already have.

Vineyards in Bierzo were first planted by the Romans

Mencía in Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra: Indeterminate Origins and Elegant Wines

When the Mencía-based wines of Bierzo and, to a lesser extent, Ribeira Sacra first began to gain traction in the American market about a decade ago, amateur as well as professional winos were stumped by the variety, which is basically planted no place else but here and whose origin is still not fully clear.

Bierzo is the largest red wine-producing region in Galicia and its vineyards, which were first planted by the Romans in the 11th century, lie in the relatively flat sections of the Sil River valley. Neighboring Ribeira Sacra, whose vineyards are almost entirely planted on steep, often terraced slopes that lead down to the Sil, produces quite a bit less wine than Bierzo and almost all of the area’s wineries are small. As a very general rule, Bierzo wines tend toward the darker fruit spectrum while the wines of Ribeira Sacra lean toward more restrained red fruits and minerals.

Picked short of optimal ripeness, Mencía resembles nothing so much as a Cabernet Franc from France’s Loire Valley, many of which are also picked before the fruit attains full ripeness. A pretty fair number of Bierzos and Ribeira Sacras that began making their way into the U.S. in the mid-2000s showed exactly that character, which essentially limited their appeal to the same relatively narrow market that appreciates Cabernet Franc of a similar profile. A number of the wines were also on the gamey side as winemaking practices and cellar conditions in the region were often (and continue to be) rustic, and not in the romantic sense. But when Mencía is able to ripen fully and is well cared for in the cellar, it’s capable of producing glorious wines with vivacious red fruit and floral character, vibrant minerality and spiciness, and the balance to age. Fortunately, more and more Mencías done right, especially those from Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, have made their way into the market in recent years and those who have always viewed Spanish red wines as ripe and powerful owe it to themselves to see how well the country can do finesse. 

The vineyards of Ribeira Sacra are almost entirely planted on steep, terraced slopes that lead down to the Sil River

The Lesser-Known Regions, Grapes and Wines of the Northwest

Valdeorras, which is the most inland Galician wine zone, is mostly planted to Mencía for red wines and to the native Godello variety for whites. Its reds tend toward the rich, brawny side compared to Bierzo and, especially, Ribeira Sacra, but nobody will confuse them with wines from Ribera del Duero. The whites can be extremely interesting as Godello, which is also the dominant white variety in the relatively rare Bierzo blancos, generally produces wines that are more densely packed, structured and higher in alcohol than those made from Albariño.

Ribeiro, which is mostly planted to the white Treixadura variety, is a small D.O. that lies just southwest of Ribeira Sacra on the Sil; its vines are mostly planted on steep, riverside slopes, often on terraces. Like Godello, Treixadura produces fresh, mineral-driven wines that usually come off as burlier than those made from Albariño and they are also well suited to short-term aging. 

Obscure varieties such as Hondarrabi Zuri dominate the vineyards of Txakolina

Basque Country and Txakolina

Those who have been familiar with Txakoli (in the overwhelming majority of cases white) for some time are almost universally aghast at the rapid rise in prices for this category of light-bodied, low-alcohol, usually spritzy wines. The varieties planted here are about as obscure as it gets: Hondarrabi Zuri is the dominant variety for the white wines and, for the rarely seen pink and red versions, Hondarrabi Beltza, with some rogue Folle Blanche, Riesling and obscure local varieties occasionally popping up here and there. Base-level white Txakoli, which is widely available at bars, restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations throughout Basque country, really isn’t much to write home about. The best Txakolis, though, when made by serious producers with prime, steeply sloped vineyards that face the Atlantic, can be truly outstanding wines by any measure and the market clearly concurs as many of these bottlings are now strictly allocated and pushing the $30 price point. These citrus and mineral wines are ideal companions to the region’s shellfish.


This is a somewhat perplexing and often an anonymous winegrowing region because so many of its vineyards are heavily planted to French varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and too many of its wines are undistinguished. Living in the shadow of world-famous Rioja hasn’t helped Navarra’s image or self-esteem, and for many years this D.O. was best-known for pretty much one type of wine, Garnacha-based rosado. The best versions of these pink wines can be very good indeed; in fact, through the early 2000s Navarra was widely considered to be the single best region in all of Spain for pink wines. Most Navarra wines today, the vast majority of them red, are blends of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. While many of them are competently made, few of them are going to excite wine lovers, especially considering how much great Rioja is available at similar price points.

Current Vintages in Northern Spain

Two thousand fourteen was relatively kind to the Atlantic-influenced vineyards of Spain, with cool weather through the summer preserving acidity in the grapes and preventing sugar levels from running away. Warmer weather in the weeks leading up to the harvest helped the grapes achieve normal ripeness and the resulting wines, both reds and whites, tend to be classically structured, with good weight and fresh acidity. Some of the white wines show an element of softness that suggests they’ll be best drunk on the young side, but they are in no way loose-knit unless they’re compared to the previous vintage.

The 2013s, the products of a cold, damp vintage, are mostly in a high-acid style; many whites are a bit screechy and the reds often emphasize herbs over fruit. Serious, quality-conscious producers who risked letting their fruit hang for fuller ripeness and made strict selections in the vineyards and winery crafted some excellent wines, but this is definitely a vintage to buy with care.

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--Josh Raynolds