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Forgotten Varietals in Northern Spain

Forgotten Varietals in Northern Spain

Local legend says that the wine grape first arrived in Galicia, in the far northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, on the backs of Roman soldiers. They ventured deep into the lush valleys, planting clusters of grapes to harvest when they’d return on subsequent military campaigns. 

Nowadays, Galicia’s mist-shrouded hills—best known for Albariño production—are covered in a variety of grapevines, some so old the grapes they produce don’t even have names. Historically, these vines have been integral to the local subsistence economy, providing generations of families with wine to drink at home. The region’s humid, oceanic climate yields fresh, minerally wines with what growers describe as a uniquely Atlantic character. 

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But this diversity may also play a key role in viticulture’s future. As rising temperatures and worsening drought conditions wreak havoc on global agriculture, growers and researchers in Spain have been working to resurrect nearly extinct grapes, both to preserve biological heritage and to discover useful genetic traits that could help the industry weather climate change. 

The Untapped Potential of Ancient Grapes

An increasingly erratic climate is disrupting the wine industry, with European Union data showing that Spain’s overall wine production fell by 14% from 2020 to 2021, largely due to extreme weather events. 

Due to historical factors like the phylloxera plague of the 1800s—as well as market forces driving consumers towards the greatest hits—just 13 of the world’s 10,000 known grape varieties cover one-third of global vineyard area. According to Eurostat data, the Tempranillo grape alone represents nearly 14% of all red-wine grape cultivation in the E.U. despite its sensitivity to drought and infection.  

According to Ignacio Morales-Castilla, an ecologist and wine grape researcher at Madrid’s Alcalá University, one of the most powerful tools against climate change is crop diversity. He estimates that if growers keep their current varieties, a 2°C (3.6°F) global temperature increase could eliminate 56% of the world’s wine regions. If growers adopted more climate change–resistant varieties, this number could be reduced by half.

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“We’re seeing some varieties that, even though they have been perfectly suited to their climate over the last 50, 60, 100 years, they are now in recent years starting to fail,” he says. “Growers are already thinking, ‘What are the substitutes going to be?’”

Galicia’s humidity makes it ideal for mildew and other grape-harming fungi to flourish. Increased fungal outbreaks have been correlated with effects of climate change, like higher temperatures and more concentrated rainfall, so future wine-growing conditions may favor more fungi-resistant varieties, Morales says. 

Combing the Countryside for Old Vines

In 1987, Galician viticultural researcher Carmen Martinez and her colleagues at the Biological Mission of Galicia began a monumental task: collecting, documenting and naming every indigenous grape variety growing in the region.

They wanted to locate and exploit the varieties so well-adapted to their environments that they could be used to produce quality wines without chemical treatment.

“Some varieties have a very particular level of adaptation to these climate conditions, while others don’t,” Martinez says. “But those that don’t work well here might work better elsewhere, under other conditions.” 

The best-adapted grapes have spent centuries in their soil and climate, growing on “century vines” more than 300 years old. During the study, Martinez and her team would arrive in a village and ask the townspeople if they knew anyone who had one. Everyone, it seemed, either had a century vine on their property or knew someone who did. 

Many of the vines they found were planted generations ago to make wine for home consumption. The researchers identified more than 50 distinct varieties in Galicia and neighboring Asturias: Blanco Lexítimo, Souson, Caiño Tinto, Tinto Castañal, Caiño Blanco, Espadeiro and Albarello, to name a few.

Ancient Grapes to Know 


Image Courtesy of Biological Mission of Galicia

In the Salnés Valley of the Rias Baixas, in the northwest corner of Iberia, tucked among rolling, grapevine-covered hills, lies the Viña Moraima cooperative. The small bodega grew from a group of 11 growers who joined together in 2006 to preserve and introduce to the world the wines their families had been enjoying for generations. 

Moraima member Roberto Rivas had known about the century vine growing on his family’s property since he was a child, although he didn’t know the variety. His grandfather taught him to care for the vine and how to prune and water it according to its specific needs. 

Only once Martinez and the Biological Mission got involved in 2014 was it identified as Ratiño, an ancient white grape that once covered the hills of the Salnés, but today exists on just a few scattered plants. 

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Moraima is now months away from selling the world’s first Ratiño varietal. Named Mausiño—a combination of the English “mouse” and the Galician diminutive “iño,” which means small—the wine is pale yellow and minerally, with notes of green apple, citrus and balsamic, typical of the “Atlantic” wines produced among the cool ocean breezes and saline soils of the Salnés. 

The vines’ productivity remains low, but Moraima’s head enologist Roberto Taibo says Ratiño’s ancient roots means it offers unique advantages, like resistance to drought and mildew. 

“Having a variety rooted in the soil in which it’s lasted for centuries, we expect that diseases won’t be as aggressive,” Taibo says. 


Albarello grapes
Image Courtesy of Biological Mission of Galicia

In the mountainous Ribeira Sacra, researcher and viticulturist José Enrique Pérez was among the first growers to cultivate Albarello—also known as Brancellao—after the phylloxera plague nearly drove it to extinction. 

He’d known of its existence, being once one of the Ribeira Sacra’s most abundant varieties, but after scouring the countryside, Pérez could only find a single Albarello vine, located on a private vineyard. Now, he has hundreds growing on his property. 

“It’s balanced, the vine doesn’t need as much care,” he says. “It’s more resistant to a lot of diseases.”  

Albarello is hardy and resists mildew and the botrytis fungus. Its wine is rich, with subtle notes of red fruit and oak, deep red in color but clear enough to allow light to pass through. 

But despite its useful adaptations and high quality, Albarello’s productivity remains low. Pérez says his vines produce about two kilograms each of the grape, while a Mencía vine—one of Ribeira Sacra’s most widely-planted red grapes—might produce twice as much. Although numerous vineyards now sell Albarello wines, it would take a massive shift in local business mentality for the grape to be cultivated on a large-scale. 

“People are very skeptical,” Pérez says. “They simply grow it to say, ‘Look, we’re on the wave, we have these novelties.’ We would need new people with a younger mentality to come take charge of this.”

Caiño Blanco and Caiño Tinto

Caíno Tinto
Image Courtesy of Dominique Roujou de Boubee

Back in the Rias Baixas, Attis Bodega sells an entire line of wines made from Galicia’s minority grapes, including Albarello, as well as Caiño Blanco and Caiño Tinto. 

Caiño Tinto in particular is quickly becoming a favored red among Rias Baixas growers, with its large, thick-skinned grapes producing fragrant wines with hints of licorice and balsamic. 

The genetically distinct Caiño Blanco is also gaining attention for its complex profile and its similarities to Albariño, though its stronger acidity, lower minerality and floral notes make it good for blends, says Attis co-founder Robustiano Fariña. Due to the grape’s long ripening cycle, it’s notably sensitive to extreme temperatures, but this also gives it strong terroir, allowing it to absorb the characteristics of the land that make Galician wines unique.

But there remains a marketability problem, Fariña says. The vines are relatively new, so the grapes they produce can be rough, with an unrefined character consumers aren’t used to. 

“These wines from these minority grapes were missing polish,” Fariña says. “Although they’re being expressed in their natural state, these are varieties that will develop and mature very well, but with time.” 

For now, consumers who want an herbal red like Caiño Tinto, Albarello or Galicia’s other minority varieties are more likely to turn to France or Italy, he says. Generally speaking, the market for Spanish reds favors the smoother, fruitier profiles of wines from Ribera del Duero or Rioja. But Fariña is optimistic that this can change. 

“It’s a question of culture and education on the consumer’s part,” he says.

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