Rias Baixas is located nestled on the Atlantic Coast in Galicia in the Northwestern corner of Spain. It is a relatively new appellation, the DO having only officially formed in 1988. However, the history of this region goes back much further to the 12th century when the Cisterian Monks are reported to have introduced the Albariño grape to the region. It is actually made up of five distinct sub-regions, each with its own soil type and microclimate.
Historically, Rias Baixas was primarily planted to red grapes. In fact, by the early 20th century, production leaned 95% red and only 5% white. Today, of course, the region is primarily known for its bracing, fresh and salty Albariño. And while there were a total of 30 wineries when the DO was formed in 1988, today there are close to 200 to keep up with worldwide demand for what is now perhaps Spain’s most well-known white wine.
While the vast majority of Albariño is made on an industrial scale to knock back easily in its youth, there are a handful of tiny artisanal producers who are pushing the boundaries of this region and this varietal and crafting some of Spain’s most original, complex and age-worthy white wines. And in the top echelon of this pyramid is Bodegas Zarate, who is one of Rias Baixas’ and Spain’s most exciting and talented winemakers.
The Zarate estate has a long history, dating back to 1707. In 1850, they planted what is now Rias Baixas’ oldest documented pre-phyloxera Albariño vineyard called El Palomar, which still produces wine to this day. There are also ancient plantings of Loureiro Tinto and Caiño Tinto which have become super rare in an appellation that is now almost exclusively planted to white grapes.
Today, the winery is run by 7th generation, Eulogio Pomares, who started in 1999. Like many top winemakers, he is not only uber-fastidious in the vineyards and cellar, but he is also one who is a lover of the great wines of the world and makes it a point to visit top domaines not only in Spain and nearby Portugal, but also other regions like Burgundy, Barolo and Champagne (the latter, a huge personal favorite of his). This curiosity and world view of wines he feels helps to sharpen his techniques and perspectives for his own wines.
The Zarate estate encompasses a total of 9.6 Ha of vines, over 12 different parcels. It is located in the Val de Salnés subzone which is prized for its cool climate and close proximity to the sea, which Pomares feels gives the wines a salty character. The soils here are what is called Xabre, or weathered granite, which also helps to accentuate the intense minerality of the wines. The vines are farmed organically with many biodynamic techniques employed as well. Pomares also uses a rotation of cover crops as well as his own remedy of homeopathic “teas” to support the balance and health of the vineyards. In fact, one of his remedies includes using seaweed to help balance the phosphorus and potassium levels in the soils.
In most years, he averages around 4 tons per hectare which of course is far less than the 12 tons/Ha that is permitted in the DO. All the vineyard work, including harvest, is done by hand. In the cellar, he ferments everything with indigenous yeasts, and allows most of the wines to do at least partial malolactic fermentation. He is also judicious with his use of SO2, and in fact, some wines like Balado, see no Sulphur added during the vinification up until bottling.
The Zarate range begins with his basic Albariño which is made from vines averaging around 40 years. It is aged in tank for 6 months on its fine lees before bottling with around 15-30% of the wine completing malolactic fermentation.
Then there are three Single-Vineyard Albariños that Zarate’s flagship wines and are some of the most sought-after White Wines in Spain. There is also a tiny amount of red wines produced from indigenous varietals.
- Tras da Viña: Comes from a vineyard planted in 1970 with cuttings from the original El Palomar. The soils her are a bit different, a decomposed yellow granite, which is a bit richer than his other sites. It is fermented and aged in steel tanks with an extended elevage of 24-36 months, depending on the vintage, and does partial malolactic. In general, it is the most accessible at release of the 3 single-vineyards, and often very Chablis-like.
- Balado: This wine is from two parcels of ungrafted vines, planted in the 1950’s in a Clos (or Balo in the local dialect). Here, there is only about 40-60 cm of topsoil over a bedrock of solid granite. Vinification is in steel tank, and malolactic fermentation is blocked. As such, this is often the most taught, chiseled and mineral-driven in the line-up, and can often require some bottle age to reveal its full potential.
- El Palomar: This pre-phyloxera vineyard was planted in the 1850s and is one of the oldest surviving vineyards in the world. Like Balado, there is very little topsoil over a mother rock of hard granite. Here, the wine is fermented and aged in a large, old 22 HL foudre and encouraged to finish its malolactic fermentation. Given the incredible vine age, this wine is often displays the most haunting complexity and depth of the single vineyards.
- Red Wines: Pomares began his red wine program in 2009 as a shared project with his friend, Raul Perez. He makes tiny quantities of Espadeiro, Caiño Tinto and Loureiro Tinto, mostly from very old estate plantings that he has fastidiously maintained, plus some new plots for which he has used massale cuttings from his old vines. These reds are bright, high-toned, and fresh with low alcohols, and the gentle vinification is employed to try and counter the sometimes rustic nature of these varietals.