Not too long ago, if anyone thought about wine from Galicia, in the cooler northwest corner of Spain, it was about Rías Baixas, and albariño. In the 1990s, the grape muscled its way onto wine lists, Spanish and otherwise, as a white counterpart to the ubiquity of red Rioja. The wines weren’t usually exciting but they were reliable and friendly—like Sancerre with a Spanish accent.

While albariño mustered only lukewarm excitement, the region’s red wines have steadily become a cause for thrill. They are truly unique in wine, perhaps because Galicia is so wildly different from elsewhere in Spain—not just because of climate (Santiago de Compostela can be cooler than Beaune, France, 900 miles northeast) given the proximity to the cold Atlantic but also the extreme westernness of its geography: fly due north and you land in County Tipperary, Ireland.  

The best known of Galicia’s reds are those from Ribeira Sacra, a small area in the eastern part of the region not far from León, where similar wines are made in Bierzo. The name translates, essentially, to “sacred river,” and the first time you glance at the area’s vineyards, soaring up from the banks of the rivers Síl and Miño at slopes that can surpass 50 degrees, the seemingly sacred import of these wines (and sheer folly of the farmers) becomes evident. The terraces, which date to Roman times, are akin to the precipitous vineyards of Germany’s Mosel, but steeper and more ragged. It’s difficult to find such earnest red wines, made in such improbably tough circumstances—and at such low prices—anywhere else in the world.

The dominant grape here, and in many Galician regions, is the indigenous mencia—a grape that should well become known as the world’s next great red variety. In countenance, it slightly resembles two other noble reds: syrah and cabernet franc. And in some ways, it offers the best of each: that slight herbal and chile-pepper side of franc, with the spicy pepperiness, and slightly feral nature, of syrah.

Throughout the region, you can also find red caiño, bit players like brancellao and even garnacha (grenache), as well as a notable blip for merenzao, which in Portugal is called bastardo and in France is known as trousseau, the beloved grape of the Jura. To find it in Galicia fills in a small piece of the mystery as to how it thrives in both Iberia to subalpine France, and also opens a new front in the ongoing saga of geek appeal for this much-loved Jurassic grape.

Ribeira Sacra has managed a rarity in Spanish wine: achieving rising popularity and the attention of star vintners like Raúl Pérez, while side-stepping the monotony that befell places like Priorat. But Ribeira Sacra is only one part of the tale. In the tiny area of Valdeorras, squeezed into the eastern edge of the province between Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo, you’ll find mencia with a bit more growl than the Ribeira wines. To the south, in Monterrei, at the edge of Portugal, quality wines (versus bulk) are making inroads. And in Ribeiro, not far away on the banks of the Miño, there’s a kinship with the evanescent reds in Vinho Verde, on the Portuguese side of the border. Even Rías Baixas, so dominated by white wine, has a smidgen of often very good red; the DoUmia from Pedralonga has for years been a rustic, fresh-tasting standout in an ocean of albariño.

Our latest PUNCH tasting brought highs and lows to our opinion of Galician reds. A handful of relatively new wines, like the Castro Candaz project from Pérez and Rodrigo Méndez, are further making it impossible to ignore the small band of stars in Ribeira Sacra, like Pérez and Pedro Rodríguez of Guímaro, whose talents with mencia more than rival the best talents with Rhône syrah. At the same time, some of our perennial favorites seemed a bit less charming this time, perhaps due to a handful of difficult recent vintages. And while there’s a small naturalist contingent in the region, they didn’t exactly shine. (“Blood and cat litter” was one more colorful description.)

Regardless, these are all wines that should be in anyone’s roster, especially if you enjoy Spanish wine but are hesitant to gravitate too far from the comforts of Rioja. Few corners of the wine world offer so much character without also falling prey to pretense.

THE CLASSIC | TIE

Guímaro Finca Meixemán Ribeira Sacra Red

Pedro Rodríguez’s work belongs on a roster with talents like Clos Rougeard in the Loire and Thierry Allemand in the Rhône. These are distinctive, astonishingly complex wines, made with a minimum of intervention and no mark of the cellar. Meixemán is from a small 1.2-hectare parcel of 70-year-old vines, made with whole grape clusters and foot treading. It brings to mind the great syrahs of Cornas (Allemand or other), in its intense black peppercorn and cardamom flavors, and a deep briny side to match the subtle fruit character.

  • Price: $35
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: José Pastor Selections/Skurnik Wines

Dominio do Bibei Lalama Ribeira Sacra Red

Javier Domínguez works the Quiroga-Bibei subarea of Ribeira’s southeast, and Lalama always offers a more Burgundian take on mencia (with bits of brancellao, mouratón and more blended in). The more subtle approach always raises the question of whether it has the gravitas to make a strong case for the region, but its sheer prettiness—scents of lilies and wild blueberries, with a roasted-earth dark side—always wins out.

See also: D. Ventura, Algueira, Luis Rodriguez

  • Price: $37
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: De Maison Selections

THE EVERYDAY

Pedralonga DoUmia Rías Baixas Red

You might think Pedralonga’s talent was with albariño, but it’s DoUmia, with its distinctive, ruddy leaf on the label, that remains one of the great joys of Spanish regional wine. A blend dominant in mencia, with caiño and espadeiro, aged in steel for less than a year, it shows the light, tangy, franc-like side of mencia with a distinct influence from the nearby Atlantic. Fragrant with aromas of celery seed and blackcurrants, this latest is a bit more raw than some years, but just right for a late-winter stew.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2013
  • From: David Bowler Wine

THE STAR

Castro Candaz Finca El Curvado Ribeira Sacra Red

Proof that Ribeira Sacra can do a bit of fashion without going too far: a new effort from Raúl Pérez, the semi-official prophet of the region, and Rodrigo Méndez, whose family owns albariño stalwart Do Ferreiro. Fermented in large wood vats and aged in larger oak, this is from mid-20th-century parcels of mencia, with merenzao (aka trousseau), garnacha tintorera (alicante bouschet) and caiño mixed in. It’s aggressive, smelling of morcilla and Mexican chocolate, with a saline side and roasted, plummy fruit.

See also: Raúl Pérez's El Pecado and La Penitencia, Envínate

  • Price: $29
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Skurnik Wines

THE OUTLIER | TIE

Ronsel do Sil Alpendre Ribeira Sacra Merenzao

Maria José Yravedra is both preserving the great traditions along the river Síl and amending them through meticulous vine research. This is merenzao from young vines grown on granite at 1,600 feet above the river. It’s a ripe expression, tasting of strawberry compote and the bite of iodine, with a mineral intensity often wanting in this grape.

  • Price: $49
  • Vintage: 2013
  • From: Savio Soares Selections

Escalada Do Sil Valdeorras Red

It’s an open question as to whether Alberto Orte is doing something completely new with this wine, or simply reviving old tradition in Valdeorras. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. This is serious stuff, if not necessarily traditional, in that it mixes merenzao with mencia and garnacha tintorera. The result is a rollercoaster: smoky and intense with notes of peppercorn and hibiscus, alongside wild strawberry fruit. It’s a perfect snapshot of where Galicia is heading.

See also: Viña Mein Tinto Atlantico, Algueira Merenzao, Quinta da Muradella

  • Price: $40
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Olé Imports
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