The Albas are a humble and practical family so they didn’t trouble themselves too much when they had to pick a name for their wine business. Both their winery and the two hectares of owned and rented land they work are close to the Atlantic ocean, an element which is key in their philosophy and in the wines they make in the mouth of the River Umia, in the heart of Galicia’s Rías Baixas.
Since 2006, Xurxo Alba is the visible face of Albamar although it was his father Luis who planted most of their Albariño vines way before, when Xurxo was still a kid. When he lost his job as a bricklayer, Luis devoted his efforts to make simple wines, sold in bulk and with no labels in the family’s furancho —a tavern-cum-shop run by his wife Isabel where locals have the chance to enjoy one of the region’s best homemade Spanish omelettes served along a jug of Barrantes red, a very simple and rough wine drank in this area which comes from hybrid vines.
It was Xurxo who started to shape the character and style of Albamar, whose wines are increasingly well regarded outside Galicia. “But it’s my parents who are still in charge”, he adds.
Cheerful and willing to take up a challenge, Xurxo managed to find a job as consultant after studying viticulture but after being made redundant in 2013, he started to work full-time at the family winery.
Buying vineyards is very expensive and difficult given Galicia’s traditional large number of small holdings, and renting isn’t easy either. “Buying grapes is necessary if you want to make a decent living. The hardest thing here is dealing with the locals; convincing them that there is room for new projects and ideas”, explains Xurxo. He illustrates his point with the anecdote of one of his long-time grape purveyors, an 84-year-old woman who refuses to even rent him her land, let alone selling it.
He is gradually adapting vineyard works towards more environmentally friendly ways, but he has his feet on the ground. Being by the sea, the threat of fungal diseases like mildew and oidium is always present. “I would like to work without added sulphur, but not in all of my vineyards; we need to make a living”. He has taken risks in the past and recalls the 2013 vintage, when he lost 70% of the harvest in one of his small plots, which was treated only with copper, sulphur and natural extracts. Despite this setback, he is still set on vinifying it separately one day.
He doesn’t till the soil preferring instead to oxygenate it a bit, but his father took some time to convince. “The main thing is that it looks pretty”, Luis said. He didn’t understand either why his son would want to change the way new vines are planted. Xurxo prefers them trellised instead of the traditional pergola that his father wholeheartedly defends. “The wine’s structure comes from the soil but that extra bit of acidity is reached on trellised plants”, Xurxo insists. For the time being, Luis seems to be getting his way —only 5% of the vines are trellised, but Xurxo is not in a hurry.
His idea of applying sustainable viticulture methods is followed in the winery. Xurxo uses whole bunch fermentation, indigenous yeasts and no malolactic fermentation since 2011. “My wine Albamar normally underwent malolactic fermentation, but for some reason it din’t start that year so I let it be. I enjoyed the final results so we continue like that”, he says.
Xurxo likes to experiment and learn in his small garagiste winery. He has a bunch of small stainless steel and earthenware deposits —some of them shared with producer friends like Xose Lois Sebio or Fredi Torres, with whom he shares a desire to explore new ways. His aim is to keep on learning and making fresh wines with that Atlantic acidity that is part of the character of this enclave, a protected area rich in migrating birds.
His entry-level wine —the one that brought his work to the limelight— is Albamar, a 100% Albariño which spends five months on its lees (25,000 bottles, around €10 in Spain). “It’s a local style wine; it represents the essence of this land”, says Xurxo as we try a range of wines from various steel deposits. Beyond these nuances and the character of each vintage, Albamar wines strive for freshness and nerve.
With the most special vineyards and plots which stand out for their soils or vines age, he tries to reflect their character like in Finca O Pereiro (€20) an Albariño with volume —this one undergoes malolactic fermentation— which comes from sand and clay soils on the mouth of the River Umia, a special place recovered from the sea by the football ground in Castrelo, where Xurxo spent many childhood afternoons kicking the ball. Alma de Mar (€19) is also sourced from this vineyard; it is a single-varietal Albariño where the work with the lees brings unctuosity but with the permanent presence of the sea in its style.
Pepe Luis (€20) is a tribute to his brother, who died in a car accident when he was 21. This lees-aged Albariño has rested in second-use oak barrels —but will soon age in foudre— and comes from 60-year-old vines. Barely 1,000 bottles are produced of this complex Albariño with fine wood and aniseed aromas.
Along with Vinoteca Bagos, an interesting restaurant which is in the business of spreading wine culture in Pontevedra, Xurxo makes Sesenta e Nove Arrobas (€19), a selection of three plots with granite soils and 40-year-old vines which is kept with its lees for six months. The result are 1,000 liters or 69 arrobas (a traditional unit of measure, in Spanish) of a sharp and saline Albariño.
Albamar O Esteiro (€18) is his first red in the Rias Baixas appellation. Barely three old Frech oak barrels where he has aged Mencía, Caíño and Espadeiro grapes for eight months with no filtration or clarification. The wine, with a production of just over 800 bottles which are sold out almost as they are released, shows that fresh, Atlantic profile that is the trademark of Xurxo’s wines but its maturity brings lots of elegance to the wine.
In Ribeira Sacra he makes Fusco (€10), a 100% Mencía sourced from rented vineyards in the Chantada area planted on granite soils. It is his first foray outside of his comfort area in Rías Baixas, but it is unlikely to be his last.