Grapevine Archive for Rías Baixas
If any one variety can take the credit for the Spanish white wine revival, it’s albariño. This whistle-clean, elegantly dry beauty from the Galician seaboard of north-western Spain is poised enough for serious gastronomy and effortlessly delicious for informal quaffing, too. Not since the advent of Muscadet has there been such a perfect seafood match. Galicia is, after all, pescivore heaven, rich in oysters, octopus and breathtakingly fresh turbot, cod and other noble Atlantic fish, not forgetting the rude-looking and soughtafter local speciality percebes – goose-neck barnacles, which excite some as much as they repel others.
At the heart of albariño country lies the charming little town of Cambados, right on the low, estuarine Rías Baixas which give the denominación its name. Here you’ll find a handsome parador, a fine fish market, a wine museum and, in the middle of town, a jolly, life-sized bronze statue of Bacchus by the contemporary sculptor Franciso Leiro. It’s the perfect place to rest after ‘doing’ Santiago de Compostela, which is a fairly easy drive to the north-east.
Here the grape grows prolifically in the cool, rainy climate, and is trained in pergola fashion, supported by granite posts, in orderly vineyards and sprawling gardens alike. The pergolas help to circulate air around the base of the vine, inhibiting rot and maximising exposure to sunlight. Albariño appears to be genuinely indigenous to northwest Iberia – it goes by the name of alvarinho in Portugal – DNA tests having ruled out any connection, as similarities between the two once suggested, with riesling, and debunked the theory that it was introduced to the region by Benedictine monks. Quite simply, it has always been here. The quality revolution began with the widespread use of stainless steel in the winery, and the advent, in 1988, of DO Rías Baixas, which dictates that every new vintage must be quality-checked before the coveted strip label is authorised. There are now some 200 adegas bottling albariño, from family smallholdings to state-of-the-art enterprises to the long established and patrician: the ancestors of the local squire, Juan Gil, Marqués de Fefiñanes, were the first to bottle wine grown on the family estate in 1904.
I have tried, and failed, to find octopus in west London to make my favourite Galician dish of pulpo a la gallega, and even if I could, the tenderising process (beating it repeatedly against an Atlantic rock) and interminable boiling would defeat me. However, the a la gallega bit makes a brilliant dressing for any firm fish – monkfish or swordfish are particularly good.
Steam or microwave the fish to keep it moist, and, while it is still warm, dress it with plenty of good, fruity olive oil and sprinkle with an unhealthy amount of rock salt. Finish with the key ingredient, a good pinch of smoked Spanish paprika. This comes in sweet or hot mode, so use whichever feels right, but do make sure it is authentic – look out for pimentón de la Vera on the small, square, flame-red metal canisters in which it’s sold. This dish is best eaten at room temperature, and is classically served with rather plain steamed potatoes and bread, to mop up the delicious juices. Oh, and a glass of albariño of course.