Rewinding the Clock
Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain
Rediscovering the true essence of Albariño and the native red varieties of Galicia...
A stone's throw from the Atlantic Ocean, in the northern part of Rías Baixas, lies the Salnés Valley - a special place that is home to ancient, pergola trained vines, some of which are close to 200 years old and are ladened with indigenous red varieties, such as Caíño, Espadeiro and Loureiro, and Albariño.
The Méndez family have been custodians of these varieties since the beginning of the 20th century, but Rodrigo's grandfather spearheaded the move towards rediscovering these ancient varieties. Something that we can all be thankful for, as these outstanding wines show the huge potential that the Salnés Valley has for making great reds as well as white wines.
The project's philosophy is to respect the authenticity of the region's native varieties and winemaking processes. To nurture small plots resulting in wines that reflect the rich terroir sites that they come from—turning back the clock to make wine in the way that it used to be made before the industrialisation of the wine industry in the '70s. We catch up with the team courtesy of Jörgen Gunnarsson's exemplary English translation to find out more and to learn about the new wines that have just landed!New Arrivals
When most in Rías Baixas were pulling up native varieties in the 1970s to make way for Albariño, the Méndez family chose to preserve and revive this central element of Galician heritage by planting native Caíño, Espadeiro and Loureiro Tinto - to make elegant, refreshing, Burgundian style red wines. What can you tell us about these grape varieties?
The three main red varieties that make these fantastic red wines are:
Caíño - a light-skinned grape with a narrow and elegant profile on the palate like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Pineau d’Aunis with deep complexity and fantastic ageing potential. It is a late harvesting varietal, which makes it more susceptible to mildew from the rain in late October.
Loureiro Tinto - is the opposite of Caíño, a rustic variety with high acidity and thick skins that are loaded with polyphenols, which makes for dark juicy easy drinking styles.
Espadeiro - is in between the two. White pepper on the nose - it has a broader palate and fruity character from the dark shist, iron-rich soils.
"The red wines are not what you would expect of any Spanish wine that you’ve tasted before”
But what about Albariño?
Rodrigo’s approach to Albariño is about rediscovering its true essence, as it tasted before the chemical industrialisation started in the ’70s. And to show how Albariño is expressed in different terroir sites.
Since the 70’s Albariño production has almost entirely been industrial, with huge production of 14,000 kilos per hector. Taking grapes from all over Rías Baixas and putting them in a big tank rather than making a terroir wine from one special plot. Technology in winemaking was introduced, and instead of taking risks, cultured yeast and cold fermentation in stainless steel became the norm. These cultured yeasts manipulate the wine and bring in completely new flavours, as did the tropical flavours of banana and pineapple that have become synonymous with the standard Albariño style. Albariño is aromatic, but it’s not tropical.
What can you tell us about the vintage variations over the past few years?
For the reds, the 2018 vintage is wonderful for ageing. It had beautiful ripening and very few problems with disease. There is a lovely roundedness to the wine from the long healthy ripening period. The 2019 is also very good for reds - it was a little warmer than the 2018, but we still maintained the refreshing and balanced alcohol levels of 12.5%.
In contrast, for the whites, the 2019 vintage is the best to date. The harvest was warmer and drier, and the acidity in the wines is higher than for the 2020 vintage. Sadly we lost 30% of production in 2020, but what was left gave us a balanced and concentrated weight on the palate. The 2020 is one of the best years for the whites, especially for longer ageing potential.
" This is Albariño with no make-up!"
Rías Baixas has a rich mix of different terroir sites. What influence does this play on style and flavour?
Both the reds and the whites reflect the Atlantic climate. The whites are aromatic, and there’s a salinity from the sea. They’re full of fruit, freshness, tension and an electric feeling from the granitic soil.
The reds share a similarity to Cabernet Franc’s from the Loire but with more acidity, narrower on the palate, and very fresh. They too share a strong influence from the decomposed granitic and fine grain sandy soils - known in Galicia as Xabre.
With so many different terroir sites that reflect different characteristics in the wines, we decided to vinify them separately in small vats, and little by little, we have started to bottle almost 20 different cuvées across both projects - Forjas del Salnés and Bodegas y Viñedos Rodrigo Méndez.
The white clay found in the sunny Goliardo vineyards are full of decomposed fossils and minerals - only a 20 meter stone's throw from the sea, which imparts a more round - wider mouthfeel. The Finca Genoveva site, which is 5km inland and home to vines of 150-200 years old; produces much deeper, much longer, and much more complex wines, especially when aged. You can read more about the ancient vines of Finca Genoveva in a free article written by Salvator Vandewalle for JancisRobinson.com, where he explains how "the story of Finca Genoveva is in a certain way the history of Rias Baixas - a link to a different era, a heritage to treasure and learn from for the future".
Since the beginning, we’ve been working in an old school kind of way - without adding anything except for sulphur at bottling. We practice sustainable organic production and use native yeast only. We prefer to use old oval-shaped demi-muids and oak foudres for ageing our wines. They preserve the fruit, maintain the tension, direction, definition and depth in the wine, and beautifully let in enough oxygen, with very few problems with reduction while acting as an excellent vessel for natural stabilisation.
We also started to make our own concrete foudres, first as an experiment, and the result is fascinating, and we’re very happy, so we plan to make more of those! I think that in a few years from now, we’ll be selling our last stainless-steel vats.
"We make wines that are refreshing, rich, precise and perfect for ageing."
"Our entry-level Leirana is made from 150-year-old vines - we’re obsessed with this wine!”
What is the difference between Forjas del Salnés and Bodegas y Viñedos Rodrigo Méndez
The idea with the Bodegas Viñedos Rodrigo Méndez project was for Rodrigo to make wines that focus on the village of Meaño where Rodrigo was born, in the heart of Salnés valley of Rías Baixas. While Forjas del Salnés is spread out across the Rías Baixas appellation.
2012 was the first bottling of Sálvora and Cíes, and production is much smaller. Sálvora is the best vineyard we have, the vines are 115 years old, and the soils are limestone-rich spread across a 3,000 sq meters site. Cíes is a village wine from three very old vineyards in Meaño. The theory is that Albariño was first planted here in the 12th Century.
What would be your favourite food and wine pairing?
Galician food, like percebes (barnacles), almejas gallegas (clams, the bigger and whiter the better), mejillones en escabeche (blue mussels in pickle brine), pulpo a la brasa (grilled octopus), grilled or oven-baked sea bream (or turbot, works too!), and Galician beef, old cow preferably.
Other favourite food pairings are anchovies from Santoña, spaghetti vongole (Galician clams again…), and kokotxas…
If you could send a message to the people who drink these wines worldwide, what would it be?
Never stop exploring. There is always interesting wine to drink, food to eat, good people to meet, places to see (and possibly make wine at!).
Besides being addicted to anchovies, kokotxas, compté cheese (and a dozen others) and all the Galician food mentioned above, I’m also addicted to good people with good energy, and if I may say so, good vinos!
Thank you Jörgen, for helping us to tell this delicious story!
"The last three years have been the best vintages to date!"
Words by Sarah Jones.