We were lost, lost in wine country between two small mountains in the D.O. Rías Baixas sub-zone of Ribeira do Ulla. We rounded a bend and saw a sign of life: an exuberant young man with a straw hat coming excitedly toward us. It appeared we had found Adegas Castro Brey.
The young man embraced us and introduced us to his colleague, Ana. We’ve been working with Ana for over three years on bringing the local albariño grape to a wider audience. In typical Spanish winemaking tradition, the winery remains in the hands of the family. Ana is directly related to the original founder, Isabel Becerra while the young man, commercial director and fancy-packaging extraordinaire, Ramón Blanco is married to a cousin of the offspring of the progenitor.
Castro Brey is tucked into the folds of the hills between Camanzo and Amosa next to the hamlet Vila de Cruces, inhabitants 20, about 27 km southeast of Santiago de Compostela. The Río Ulla meanders through the zone creating a nearly sub tropical micro climate on its way to empty into the Atlantic in the upper Rías Baixas. Rías Baixas means lower estuaries and in this picturesque area along the coast, dozens of inlets can be found where sweet water swirls with salt water to make a bivalve mollusc-lover’s paradise. Well-heeled Gallegos and adventuring Madrileños feast on steamed, sauced and fried seafood all to be washed down by one thing: albariño.
It is said that this northwest corner of Spain is the birthplace of albariño though some still contend that it is a noble grape brought over from Germany by monks on their camino to Santiago de Compostela. That story is quite lovely, but there are plantings in Galicia of albariño that date back 300 years and DNA testing has concluded that there is no genetic link to riesling.
Albariño is a thick-skinned grape with tightly-packed bunches. The high humidity in Galicia make its cultivation tricky. If the vines were not lifted off the ground on statuesque granite pillars called emparrados, they would succumb to the moisture and be unable to aerate their bunches.
The five sub-zones of Galicia produce five distinct expressions of albariño. The most inland, Condado do Tea “Tea County” vinifies to what could be considered a Spanish viognier because of its oily texture and soft stone fruit aromas. The microclimate here is hot and dry around the Tea river and the temperature in the summer easily reaches 104°F. Whereas the grape grown right on the Atlantic coast in the Val de Salnés “Silent Valley” has strong notes of minerality and acidity being grown on granite and rock.
Castro Brey belongs to the Ulla do Ribeira sub-region which is noted for its alluvial soils. But, Ramón reminds us, the Castro Brey plots are an unusual mix of alluvial top soil on highly acidic granite and quartz. The microclimate is hot but with strong breezes through the valley, regulating the heat that the vineyards’ grapes absorb. This produces a wine that is juicy yet structured, fruit-forward with traces of minerality.
Albariño is one of the few Spanish cultivars that is grown, vinified and bottled as a single varietal. Chablis has chardonnary, Sancerre the sauvignon blanc and Rías Baixas has albariño. Ramón escorts us through the vineyards, traversing the countryside as he chats on happily about the Castro Brey philosophy. He is an architect by day and winemaker by post-siesta and night. His contribution is the creative packaging changes that Castro Brey has had to endure over the years. They were the first Galician winery to cover a bottle with specialty plastic to make the Nice To Meet You range.
In addition to still wines, Castro Brey also is also the smallest commercial supplier of Spanish aguardiente, firing the copper kiln to produce about 100L per year of the mildest, highest quality “fire water” we’ve ever tasted. It was fire water that did not burn. They produce three versions: the original clear distilled orujo, the fluorescent hierbas made with fresh herbs and the café de liquor made with beans imported from a friend in Jamaica and a light dressing of homemade caramel syrup. The bottles and boxes were designed by Ramón and if you turn the three bottles upside down, each sketch tells the story of the meeting, greeting and eventual nuptials of Ramón and his wife.