Elegant and expressive: Iberia’s indigenous white grape varieties

The arrival of Spring calls for elegant white wines with revitalising acidity and fresh aromatics. We’re looking to Iberia, where extensive coastline, vast mountain ranges and an intricate patchwork of soils provide immense potential for the production of exceptional white wines. Across the peninsula, producers are championing indigenous grape varieties and unearthing forgotten regions. Well adapted to their local climate, soils and topography, the vines produce distinctive white wines with a sense of place. These wines have successfully moved from curiosities to firm favourites.

The Atlantic-facing regions of Spain's Galicia (Rías Baixas, Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra) as well as Portugal's Vinho Verde and Bairrada have established a reputation for crowd-pleasing white wines. With a pronounced maritime influence, these wines are expressive of their cool, Atlantic origins, with a saline edge and acid backbone. Restrained use of oak, if any, and lees ageing underscore the wines’ purity of fruit and local varieties’ textural quality. Further inland, high-altitude sites in the Douro and Dão regions experience a marked diurnal range. This ensures a perfectly paced, slow ripening for the development of complex aromatics while retaining balanced acidity. The local schist and granite soils also impart a characteristic intensity in the wines.

Santiago Ruiz, ‘Rosa Ruiz’ Rías Baixas Albariño 2018

Santiago Ruiz is based in the O Rosal sub-zone of Rías Baixas, the most southerly of the five sub-zones, situated on the north bank of the river Miño, which marks the border with Portugal. O Rosal enjoys more sunlight hours and lower rainfall than other subzones and the vineyards here benefit from both cooling Atlantic breezes and the moderating influence and increased airflow from the river. Soils in O Rosal are predominantly sandy over a granite bedrock, this translates into wines with an aromatic richness combined with a characteristic wet-stone minerality.

The Albariño for the 'Rosa Ruiz' comes from a selection of old, low-yielding vines planted at the foot of the old Santiago Ruiz winery (now a museum) in San Miguel de Tabagón. These old vines produce lower yields of extremely concentrated fruit, packed with flavour, and are trained on pergolas – harking back to the region’s viticultural traditions. An extended pre-fermentation maceration, to extract maximum aromatics from the thick-skinned Albariño grapes, and five months of lees ageing following fermentation have resulted in a complex and textured wine with intense aromas of apricot and ripe lemon.

Azevedo, Alvarinho Reserva 2019

Alvarinho also thrives on the other side of the Miño/Minho river in Portugal’s Vinho Verde region and Azevedo recently released a 100% Alvarinho from grapes sourced from warmer sites in the region, inland and more sheltered from the cooling Atlantic influence, where the grape reaches optimum levels of ripeness. As 100% Alvarinho wines can only be labelled ‘Vinho Verde’ if they are from grapes grown specifically in the Monção e Melgaço sub-region in the northeast, this wine is labelled Vinho Regional Minho.

Made by the talented António Braga, a similar winemaking approach to that of the ‘Rosa Ruiz’ with pre-fermentation maceration on the skins, a cool ferment in stainless steel and lees stirring post fermentation has resulted in a rich and textured expression of Alvarinho with bright aromas of nectarine, apricot and mango balanced by a vibrant acidity.

Alter, Ribeiro Blanco 2019

Alter is a small, family-run winery on the banks of the Miño river in Ribeiro, Galicia, where wine has been produced since the 2nd century BC. Alter has 24 hectares of their own vineyards, which are on average 15 to 30 years old and are planted on decomposed granite, with sand and clay. The grapes are grown 45 kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean, where the Mediterranean climate is cooled by mountain breezes allowing the grapes to retain their freshness as they ripen slowly.  

Alter’s Ribeiro Blanco is a blend of 85% Treixadura (85%), Godello (8%) and Loureiro (7%). Local variety Loureiro, meaning ‘laurel’ or ‘bay’, injects refreshing acidity, as well as lifted floral aromas of laurel, orange blossom and acacia into the blend. The wine was aged for four months on lees in stainless steel, to highlight the varieties’ crisp aromatics. This has bright aromas of acacia, green apple and pineapple on the nose. The palate is lively with fresh acidity and juicy peach notes.

Gallina de Piel, ‘Manar dos Seixas’, Ribeiro 2018  

Gallina de Piel is an exciting winemaking project from David Seijas, the former Head Sommelier at three-Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli. Their aim is to create versatile wines from Spain’s gastronomic northern regions including Ribeiro, Galicia. He works with local growers, selecting the best vineyards and indigenous grape varieties to create wines with an emphasis on elegance and freshness.

A blend of 81% Treixadura, 10% Albariño, 8% Godello and 1% Loureiro, Manar dos Seixas is the latest wine produced by the travelling winemaking team. The grapes come from a single vineyard in the Miño river valley, where morning fog and cool valley breezes promote slow ripening and delicate aromatics. One of the principal grape varieties in Portugal’s Vinho Verde, Trexiadura provides wonderful palate-weight. This has lifted aromas of chamomile, jasmine flowers and fresh green apple. There is a wonderful pithy texture both from the variety and 8 months on lees, tempered by zesty acidity.

Luis Gutiérrez, The Wine Advocate, May 2020 
A textbook, fresh Ribeiro with classical aromas of moss and herbs, white fruit. Clean and precise.

Matthew Jukes, September 2020
Absolutely extraordinary. One of the most grown-up and exacting Spanish white wines I have tasted in years and it is a classic David creation in that it is designed to drink with epic cooking.

Dominio do Bibei, ‘Lapola’ White Ribeira Sacra 2018

Javier Dominguez’s Dominio do Bibei has been widely acknowledged as the driving force behind the emergence of quality wines in Spain’s historic Ribeira Sacra. Attracted by the region’s old vines and untouched, Jurassic landscape his family bought land in the Bibei valley, Ribeira’s most easterly sub-region. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to revive the region and its indigenous vines, undertaking what is known locally as ‘heroic viticulture’. Vines are grown at varying altitudes from 200 to 700 metres, scattered across a large, north-facing hillside with schist and granite soils, flecked with slate, quartz and iron. Freshness and good acidity levels are an obsession at Dominio do Bibei. This is aided by the region’s Atlantic climate and the vineyards’ marked diurnal range.

‘Lapola’ is a blend of 88% Godello, 10% Albariño and 2% Doña Blanca, wild yeast fermented in large format oak and concrete eggs. The vines are aged between 13 and 100 years old and planted at 400 to 750 metres above sea level, where the Atlantic climate, high altitude and north facing aspect ensure bright acidity and freshness. This is a truly distinctive wine with aromas of wild herbs, orchard fruit and spice, leading to a long and salty finish.  

95 Points - Vinos de España Guía Peñín 2021

Casa Ferreirinha, ‘Vinha Grande’ Douro Branco 2019

Casa Ferreirinha was founded in 1952 and was the first Douro producer dedicated entirely to producing still wines rather than Port. Grapes for the ‘Vinha Grande’ Douro Branco are sourced from Quinta do Sairrão, one of the coolest vineyard sites in the Cima Corgo sub-region, located at 600 metres above sea level. Cool nights at this altitude counteract the heat of the Douro days and allow the grapes to undergo a perfectly paced slow ripening, accumulating great intensity of flavour whilst retaining a crisp natural acidity.

A blend of four grapes: Viosinho and Rabigato are aromatic indigenous varieties which bring delicate notes of stone fruits and orange blossom to the blend, while Arinto and Gouveio (Galicia’s Godello) both contribute a balancing acidity. 50% of the blend is barrel fermented and then aged for eight months in new French oak barrels, resulting in a wine which marries bright fruit and floral aromas with a lovely buttery richness from the oak.

Quinta dos Carvalhais, Dão Encruzado 2019

Encruzado is the Dão region’s top white grape variety and really thrives on the region’s granite soils. It is prized for its ability to produce full bodied but balanced wines with crisp acidity and aromatics. Encruzado also has a great affinity with oak, and barrel fermentation and ageing results in wines which are akin to white Burgundy. 

Quinta dos Carvalhais were the first producer to bottle single-varietal Encruzado. Their Encruzado begins its fermentation in stainless steel and is then transferred to new French oak barrels of varying sizes where is finishes fermentation and is then aged for eight months. It perfectly marries the citrussy vibrancy of this variety with delicious notes of toasted brioche from the oak.

Série Ímpar, Bairrada Sercialinho 2017

Sercialinho is a very rare indigenous Portuguese grape, with only 9 hectares in existence. Comparable to Riesling, it produces complex and age-worthy wines characterised by a linear acidity and vibrant citrus fruit flavours. The ‘Série Ímpar’ Sercialinho, made by António Braga from grapes grown on a small plot on the Quinta de Pedralvites estate in Bairrada, was the winning wine in a challenge in which the Sogrape winemakers were tasked with producing something unusual, new and innovative. A limited edition, only 1,900 bottles were produced.

The grapes were whole bunch pressed and then barrel fermented with native yeasts in 500-litre French oak barrels, one third of which were new. António was enchanted by the wine’s tangy vibrancy and chose not to put it through malolactic fermentation in order to preserve this. A short period of bâtonnage post fermentation encouraged better integration of the oak, while still retaining the taut fruit that gives the wine its definition. It is young and intriguing, with a nose characterised by a crystalline purity of lemony, waxy fruit. On the palate, the understated oak gives a lovely texture to the wine, while the acidity corsets the fruit, and drives the intensity of flavour through the long finish.