In northwest Spain, Albariño is the thing

Albariño grapes. Photos by Dennis Schaefer
PONTEVEDRA, Spain - Standing at the promontory of a vineyard, a luscious carpet of leafy green in trellised rows stretch nearly as far as the eye can see. And on the horizon, I can make out the blue water of the ocean. The Atlantic ocean, that is, not the Pacific. Because I'm not in Santa Barbara any more, Toto, instead I'm in the very northwest corner of Spain, an area called Galicia. And this is not your father's Spain, nor even your grandfather's Spain; it's not arid or desert-like, with little of the searing heat often found inland.

This is what's called "Green" Spain. To the north and west is the cooling influence of the Atlantic ocean, to the south is the border with Portugal, and towards the east is the hot, dry interior of Spain. It's almost like a country unto itself, distinct from the rest of Spain. It was settled by seafaring, fair-skinned Celts centuries before Christ and much of their cultural influence is still felt here, manifested in things like a traditional regional instrument similar to a bagpipe, the love of the potato, charming medieval castles and emerald green hills covered in the morning mist.

The grape growing region here is called Rias Baixas (REE-us BUY-shass), named after the craggy fingers of coastal inlets (rias) that jut in from the Atlantic ocean, coupled with the those in the southern or lower (baixas) part of Galicia. In fact, this part of Spain reminds me very much of Santa Barbara; that is, if Santa Barbara got 60 inches of rain a year and had a working fishing port. But seriously, the rolling green hills looked very much like Santa Barbara wine country and the red tile roofs topping the Spanish/Moorish architecture are everywhere, just like downtown Santa Barbara.

Even more interesting to me is that Rias Baixas has three official growing regions: Val do Salnes, O Rosal and Condado do Tea, (roughly) corresponding to Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley respectively. All these regions, both in Spain and Santa Barbara, are very close to the ocean and experience its cooling influence on the vineyards, though some like Condado do Tea and Santa Ynez Valley are a little further inland and thus a bit warmer.

Unlike Santa Barbara however, 90 percent of Rias Baixas is planted to one grape variety, called Albariño (though the Spanish varietals Loureiro, Treixadura and Caino Blanco are sometimes blended in), which produces an exotic and racy white wine. How the Albariño grape came to this corner of Spain is uncertain. Some say pilgrims from Germany brought Riesling cuttings to Galicia, on their way to worship at the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where it is said the remains of St. James are buried. But some Spaniards say it was the other way around. Across the border in Portugal, the grape is called Alvarinho and is used in Vinho Verde. Until very recently, these were the only two areas in the world where this grape was planted.

Pergola style trellising system in the Rias Baixas. Photos by Dennis Schaefer
Albariño is a thick-skinned grape, which allows it to grow and prosper in this damp, maritime climate, though viticulturalists have developed a unique trellising system so the grapes are less susceptible to mold and rot. They train their vines on a pergola style system, the row posts hewn from ivory colored granite, which is plentiful in the area. The pergolas elevate the grape clusters, allowing more sunshine for ripening and also more air to circulate underneath the vines to wick away the excessive moisture.

Rias Baixas, the home of Albariño, is not a new growing region, but back in 1980 there were only a half dozen wineries: today there are almost two hundred and about forty whose wines are imported to the U.S. Everywhere you look in the semi-rural regions of Galicia, you will see green vines, many propagated in resident's backyards as well as larger farming entities. Many still make their own "homemade" wine, but increasingly they sell their grapes to larger wineries or cooperatives, who find their wines increasingly in demand, especially in the U.S.

If you like Viognier (or Pinot Grigio), you're going to love Albariño. It has all the perfume and raciness of a Viognier, but none of the blowsiness you sometimes find in the latter. Albariño is crisp, fresh and medium bodied with great acidity, which cries out for food; it's the perfect foil for seafood but also has the backbone to pair with chicken, pork and veal dishes. It's certainly a more refreshing alternative to over-oaked Chardonnay or neutered Sauvignon Blanc.

Albariño is best when consumed young, within two years of its vintage; prices are $10-$20. The 2005 vintage is the marketplace now, though the 2006's (also a very good vintage, with no grape rot) are beginning to arrive. With summer time looming on the horizon and grills ready to be fired up, Albariños are the perfect patio sipping wine. It's my choice for house white wine this season. Here are some delicious benchmark wines from Rias Baixas:

Valdamor Albariño 2005: Green apple shows up on the nose, with less stone fruit aromatics. It's already very soft and inviting in the mouth, perhaps less zippy than many. It has a very clean, crisp, green apple flavor that might seem monolithic, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. With good fruit intensity and bright acidity, sometimes keeping it simple with Albariño can be a very good way to go.

Condes de Albarei Albariño, Salneval 2005: Fresh forward fruit up front, all bright and lemony on the nose, with refreshing and direct simple lemon-lime and honeysuckle flavors. It goes down so easy with cleansing acidity on the back end. Again, entry level Albariños, like this, are meant to give a good smack of fruit and immediate pleasure. A satisfying drink on a hot summer's day.

Bouza do Rei Albariño, Castel de Bouza 2005: Another entry level wine that's not as exotic as the primary Albariño from Bouza do Rei, but it's hard to beat getting a taste of Albariño typicity for around $11 a bottle. It's more lemon/citrus in flavor profile, though pineapple, wild flower and honeysuckle do lurk in the background. Narrowly focused on the more simple flavors, it still has that tell tale clear cutting acidity that makes it zesty and refreshing.

Valminor Albariño 2005: Perhaps the quintessential fruit and floral style of Albariño; the aromas are of white flowers, peach, mango, orange blossom and honeysuckle, while the flavors are of the stone fruit variety, like apricot, nectarine and ripe peach. Long and lengthy on the palate with fine fruit complexity, the fine cut of acidity is perfect and invites another sip.

Finca de Arantei Albariño 2005: While there is a hint of peach and citrus flavors, this is the other end of the Albariño spectrum, that features more minerality in the complex flavor profile. It's almost steely, especially with a great spine of acidity; it has the same quality you might taste drinking from an unspoiled fresh mountain spring rushing over wet stones. Like a Grand Cru Chablis at less than half the price.

Pazo de Barrantes
Pazo de Barrantes Winery. Photos by Dennis Schaefer
Pazo de Barrantes Albariño 2005: Minerally, stoney, slate nose with fine citrus also pouring through. Very user friendly lemon-lime flavors with a bit of dried apricot and honeysuckle in the mix. The fruit is so ripe and luscious, it seems almost sweet but the acidity smoothes out this moderately bodied and balanced wine. It's high toned but a very complete package.

Marques de Vizhoja Albariño, Torre de Moreira 2005: This single vineyard wine has a more restrained nose that's not as perfumed as some others. But pear, green apple, white florals and tell tale honeysuckle are revealed with swirling. On the palate, honeysuckle, pear and a hint of ginger are also restrained but gradually build up and work their way into a persistent flavor groove. Rich, creamy and mouth coating, this Albariño has great structure, great bones and a kind of minerally/acidic under current that says it may reveal more with age.

Pazo de Senorans Albariño 2005: The nose is fresh and typical, with citrus and minerals, followed by green apple, grapefruit, mango and honeysuckle flavors hung on a perfectly balanced, but medium bodied frame. It also has a great prickle of lemony acidity that cleanses the palate and invites another sip. And as it warms in the glass, a bit anise or licorice like flavor comes out, give a bitter twist to things, which is surprisingly appealing in the context. Then onto the acid charged finish. A sophisticated bottling, and my "go to" Albariño.

Martinez Serantes Albariño, Dona Rosa 2005: Very pleasant and almost pretty aromas of green apple and spice. The flavors are focused on green apple and bosc pear, along with citrus and marzipan. A tiny bit of secondary malolactic fermentation gives it some additional textural qualities and leads to impressive flavor persistence on the mid palate and finish.

Laxas Albariño 2005: A prolific nose of peach, nectarine and apricot - all the stone fruit skins - in abundance here. High toned fruit in the mouth with plenty of terpenes and some bubble gum. The stone fruits, however come through in spades and it has viscosity and mouth filling character to burn. Some tart green apple and white florals add more flavor components, while the mid palate has an almost buttery (diacetyl) feel.

Maior de Mendoza 2005: A spicy inviting nose showing pear and apple. Of the three wines Adega Coto de Xiabre makes, this is the most serious. The flavors, principally of pear and green apple as well as almond and white floral, are more refined and complex than most Albariños (partial ML and lees stirring). Plenty of stuffing contributes to the weight and length on the palate and a fine spicy component does a slow fade at the finish.

Mar de Frades Albariño 2005: Perhaps the most recognizable bottle in all of Rias Baixas: it's slender and blue as the sea, with a ship's icon on the label that appears when the bottle is properly chilled. Winner of multiple packaging awards, what's in the bottle is also a knockout. Minerals, crushed wet stones and a sea spray kind of salinity complement the green apple flavors, but other facets like as nectarine, mandarin orange, papaya and just a bit of almond marzipan on the finish make this wine intriguing.

If you've read this far, I think you get the idea. As one of my traveling companions noted: if you try one Albariño and like it, you'll probably like the next one you try too. They all have that thread of Albariño typicity running through them, but there are distinctions to be made based on vineyard site and winemaking regime. Enjoy!

Next time, in part two, reserve Albariños, the movement toward the "international" wine style, and pioneering Albariño vintners in Santa Barbara County and on the Central Coast.

May 25, 2007

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