Spain’s Albarino wines show lots of citrus flavors

January 11, 2011

I think it is interesting to note that in this ongoing debate about Terroir, proposed by the French, their most famous varietals, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, etc… Are being grown all over the world with great success. The word Terroir implies all the conditions such as soil, weather, wind, etc…affecting a grapevine during the growing season that will ultimately determine how a wine will taste. The French claim that they have it, and the rest of us don’t. I suppose you could argue that up to a point. After all, a Bordeaux wine tastes like a Bordeaux wine and all though there are similar wines made around the world, they never seem to taste exactly like a Bordeaux wine. However, there are many examples of truly magnificent wines made from Bordeaux grape varieties from all over the world. So in a sense, just because they don’t taste French, does not mean that don’t taste great.

Okay, you are probably asking, “Where is he going with this?” I mentioned the subject of Terroir because perhaps it’s not France that should be making this claim, but rather countries like Italy and Spain. There are many indigenous grape varieties that these two countries have become famous for that the rest of the world has so far been unsuccessful in turning into great wines. This would certainly be the case with the Spanish Albarino grape. In fact, Spain itself has not even been successful producing great Albarino wines from anywhere else in the country other than it’s Galician home of the Rias Biaxas in the far northwestern tip of Spain. Okay, there is one other country making pretty good wines from the same grape and that would be Portugal who calls it
Alvarinho and they use it in their Vinho Verde wines. But does that really count? I mean the region they grow these grapes in, Minhos, is directly across the border from where it is grown in Spain so essentially it is being grown in the same environment. What that environment consists of is cool maritime weather, with tons of rain, and both granite and chalk soils, all within sight of the Atlantic Ocean. Not exactly the ideal place to grow wine grapes, but for whatever the reason, it seems to work for the Albarino grape.

It is kind or ironic that it is grown so close to the ocean because it is precisely the frutti di mari (Italian for Fruit of the Sea) that makes such an outstanding pair with Albarino wines. This wine makes an ideal partner with shellfish and light seafood dishes and
even chicken with lemon accents. In fact, the Spanish refer to Albarino wines as “The wine of the sea.” The people of Galicia, where it is grown, are known for their shellfish cuisine so it is only fitting that they produce a wine to complement it at the dinner table.

The Rias Biaxas, which is the wine regions name, stands for “the lower rivers”. These lower rivers are wide inlets of water that intrude many miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. This is the westernmost point in Spain and it was once considered the “End of
the World”. I guess Christopher Columbus probably set sail from here out to prove the world was round after all. (Christopher Columbus was Portuguese by the way, but Portugal would not pay for his expedition so Spain stepped in. Uh, big mistake Portugal!) The land in this region is green and hilly with a moist, mild climate. Citrus fruits are grown in abundance here. Say, Albarino wines show lots of citrus flavors, could that be Spanish Terroir getting through? Perhaps vintners around the world should try planting Albarino grapevines near their lemon trees.

The Albarino grape has thick skin and it is a good thing it does. The growing conditions would prove to be too harsh for most grapes. There’s way too much rain and very little sunshine, but fortunately, the end of summer is usually dry. Under these conditions, you would expect mold or rot to be a big problem, but these grapes have adapted well. The side effect is that the grapes are usually picked before they are allowed to fully ripen so the resulting wines are filled with high levels of acidity. However, this grape
produces a fuller creamier textured wine that buries some that harsh acidity into ideal levels. The resulting wine is one with a highly aromatic nose of orange blossoms and loads of citrus and tropical fruits on the palate. One way the growers here keep the
grapes dry is by trellising the grapevines in such a way as to allow wind to circulate over them.

As far as the soil in the Rias Biaxas is concerned, it consists mostly of granite with some chalk and clay here or there. There are lots of minerals, but very few nutrients and there is very good drainage in the vineyards because of the slopes that they are planted
on. These characteristics add a mineral edge to Albarino wines. Experts believe that the Albarino grape is a genetic descendant of the Riesling grape. Maybe that is true, but I personally can’t make the connection based on how they taste. To me, Albarino
wines taste more like a cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Both of those wines also make excellent partners with seafood. The wine itself has a green shade to it. Perhaps that is why the Portuguese named their wine Vinho Verde or “Green

The people of Galicia have been producing Albarino wines for years so it is somewhat surprising to me that the Rias Biaxas region only received it’s D.O. status as recently as 1988. I guess the quality of their wines was slow to develop. Another reason for the
late blooming for the wine region is that up until the mid 1980’s there were only five commercial wineries in the area. Now there are more than 100. I guess the word got out so to speak. D.O. status stands for Domination of Origin (similar to the French AOC & Italy’s DOC) and is only given to a wine region that makes superior wines of originality. As part of the regulations of being able to use the Rias Biaxas name on your label, the wines must be made from 100% Albarino grapes. They do sometimes use other blending grapes, but those wines must be de-classified and called something else. There are a total of five sub zones in the Rias Biaxas region. Valle de Salnes, Soutomaior, Ribeira del Ulla, El Rosal and Condado de Tea. Say that ten times fast, I dare ya!

A tour of the Dallas area wine shops will usually turn up one or two Albarino wines in each store. Surprisingly, I have found that many stores don’t all carry the same ones either. That’s a good thing if you like variety. I have had good success finding both
Spanish Albarinos and Vinho Verde’s from Portugal at Whole Foods Market. A word of caution though, Vinho Verde wines are much lighter in body and taste then an Albarino. So I recommend starting with an Albarino wine first as a way to get introduced to the
varietal. It is conspicuously convenient for me that I usually buy my high quality seafood from Whole Foods and even more of a coincidence that their wine shop is located right there in the seafood area. Maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks on me, but as I walk away from the seafood counter with my selection clams, shrimp and scallops, I hear this little voice saying, “Hey, got Albarino?”


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