The Galician wine region is situated in the northwest corner of Spain, bordering with the north of Portugal. There are 5 different ‘Denominaciones de Origen’ - Galician wine designations of origin (DO Monterrei, DO Ribeira Sacra, DO Rias Baixas, DO Ribeiro and DO Valdeorras), with the most well-known being DO Rias Baixas, especially famous for its white wines produced from the Albariño grape varietal.
During the 14th century, Galicia exported vine cuttings to other European wineries who were eager to try out their indigenous grapes. When the 19th century arrived, the whole Galician region sank into an economic depression, further deteriorated by the emigration of many local people to South America and other richer areas within Spain and Europe.
Many of the winemakers and workers that emigrated helped build the terraces and plant the vineyards of the Port wine region in the Douro in Portugal. Galicia's vineyards remained pretty much abandoned until Spain joined the European Union in 1986, and the funding that came from this helped the Galicia region stimulate a resurgence in the wine industry.
Situated along the Atlantic coast, Galicia has a very wet climate with average annual rainfall of more than 1300mm. The more than 2000 hours of sunshine that the region receives helps contribute to the high humidity of the area. The Serra dos Ancares mountain range forms the border with Castile and León to the east, and the Miño forms part of the region's border with Portugal to the south. The region's proximity to Portugal and virtual isolation from the rest of Spain has had a marked influence on the style of wines crafted in Galicia, with many of them being closer in style to Portuguese wines than to other Spanish wines.
Much of the area's vineyards are found to the south of the region in the provinces of Ourense and Pontevedra, though there are some significant plantings in Lugo to the east. The regions closer to the Miño river often produce blended wines of Albariño, Loureira and Caiño Blanca. More inland the white wines are often blends of Torrontés and Treixadura. There are also white wines dominated by the Godello grape. The light red wines of the region are primarily made from the Mencía grape. Albariño from Rias Baixas and Mencía from Ribeira Sacra are leading the way and making their presence felt on restaurant wine-lists outside of Spain.
In 2012, Galicia had around 26,000ha of vineyards used to produce wine. As a percentage of these vineyards, the 5 ‘Denominaciones de Origen Protegidas’ - (DOP) accounted for 9,689ha or 37%. There are three areas in Galicia with ‘Indicaciones Geográficas Protegidas’ (IGP) status, but their total area amounted to only 20ha. The remaining 63% of the Galician vineyard lack any geographical indication and are almost entirely used to produce wines which are consumed locally.
The vineyard soils in the region range from granite in the Rías Baixas area to slate in the Valdeorras region. Subsequent tectonic activity and weathering have produced a rugged topography with many steep slopes and deep valleys. Along the coastline many of these valleys have been flooded producing inlets or rias. Such topography means that in many areas mechanical viticulture is not possible, and labour costs required to farm these terraced plots are high. Individual plots are almost universally small, with a recent survey showing that 97% of Galicia’s approximate 84,000 vineyard plots were less than 1ha is size. Producing grapes on such small sites creates something of a logistical nightmare for the bodegas and inevitably means that Galician wine producers lack economies of scale. Therefore, production is limited and their production costs are high.
Of the DOPs in Galicia, only Rias Baixas has been able to increase its vineyard area to any significant size during the 21st century. The other four DOPs are constrained by their geography and their vineyard areas have remained relatively constant. Wine production from these DOPs is not going to increase anytime soon. So, if you want to taste a Godello wine from Valdeorras or a Mencía wine from Ribeira Sacra, you will need to do some searching - and be prepared to pay a small premium above other Spanish wines.