Albariño grapes have been written about in Spanish monastery records for 800 years. The name may translate as “White Rhine,” but frequent attempts to stitch together comparisons with Riesling have generally struck me as promotional twaddle ~ fanciful at best. Let’s not forget Semillon was called “Hunter Valley Riesling” in Australia for much of the 20th Century. Actually Albariño is carving out a niche all its own. That process is instructive; no less because it’s happening before our very eyes, with barely twenty years of antecedents. We have the opportunity to play a role in Albariño’s cultural story.
Prior to the mid 1980’s white wines in Spain and Portugal were frequently blended affairs, largely forgettable. Which is not to deny millions of people the memorable experiences they may have had in Spain involving white wine. You must understand there is a difference between the quality of the wine and the poignancy of the memory. The most widely planted white grape in the world is Airen, at around 750,000 acres. That’s more acres than all the wine grapes in California. Almost all the Airen in the world is in Spain. Airen is drought resistant. It makes a reliable foundation for alcoholic, oxidized junk sold cheaply in Spanish bars. Where the situation began to change was in 1986 when the Galician (northwest Atlantic coast of Spain) Province of Rias Baixas (pronounced REE-ahs BUY-schuss) was granted experimental DO status by the Spanish Government. Ninety percent of the grapes grown in Rias Baixas are Albariño.
Stylistically and culturally the wines of Rias Baixas bore something of a resemblance to the white Vinho Verdes of northwestern Portugal, from the Duoro River north to the border with Spain at the Minho River. No wonder. Albariño (called Alvarinho in Portugal) is a commonly used grape variety in Vinho Verdes, especially in the Minho district. In most instances the grapes are grown on high trellises (what Italians call a pergola), which help them dry out in the wind after frequent rainstorms coming off the Atlantic. It also allows for cultivation of row crops underneath ~ this lush section of Portugal is densely populated. The wines frequently have startling acidity, because it is hard getting ripe in these wet, maritime vineyards. And the wines are a wonderful match for the dominant cuisine of both regions: seafood.
DO (Denominación de Origen, Spanish appellation control) status for Rias Baixas put Albariño on the radar for consumers worldwide, goosed exports, and raised prices. Which in turn allowed more careful vineyard practices, and more artistic winemaking techniques. Growers in California and Oregon began to take notice. Which in turn spurred vintners in Galicia to raise their game further. It’s all happened recently. Which brings us to the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, www.TAPASsociety.org) tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco last weekend, 9 June 2012. These are American wineries making wine from grapes indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. They put on a nice spread. I went to focus on Albariño’s future on America’s Left Coast. If it goes with seafood, it ought to play well from Vancouver to Ensenada.
There were some 40 wineries, and about half of them had an Albariño or two on display. I was delighted to have a chance to chat with a couple highly qualified commentators amongst the winemakers. Ken Volk (www.Volkwines.com) is the guy who owned and grew the Wild Horse label in the Central Coast to 150,000 cases by the turn of the millennium. He then sold it. Today he is beginning again, using his family name, and a healthy bit of capital from the Wild Horse sale. His emphasis is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but he enjoys auditioning lesser known varieties. He is convinced Albariño will show best in California’s cool, coastal vineyards. I asked him, “Is it possible for Albariño to be too fruity?” Ken isn’t the kind of personality to bad mouth other people’s wine at a public promotion, but his answer strongly implied there were areas of California where the grapes would get riper than his personal preference. I’m inclined to go along with him.
Albariño grapes have thick skins, which is important in the wet (read moldy) climate of Spain’s Atlantic coast. Importers of Spanish wine are constantly waxing on about the peach and melon fruitiness of Albariño wines from Rias Baixas. I don’t see it. I’m routinely struck by the earthy brackishness of those wines. Call it minerality if you must. To me it is the intersection of saltiness and acidity. I perceive it as a mildly metallic glint. There may be some crab apple aroma sitting harmoniously on top, but the overall impression to me is built for mussels or grilled sardines; not for peach cobbler or watermelon salad. I also feel Albariño shares a slightly phenolic tendency with white wines from the Rhône Valley, which means winemakers need to manage skin contact very carefully.
But these remarks refer to traditional Albariño from Rias Baixas. Albariño grapes grown in California could be quite a different matter. For comparison take a look at Pinot Grigio from Veneto in Italy side-by-side with Pinot Gris from Alsace. The low elevation Italian Pinot Grigio is classic fish wine: good acid, long finish, not a lot of aromatic high jinx, well-suited to cuisine from the Po River delta. The Alsatian example (I’m partial to Kuentz Bas ~ www.kermitlynch.com) is where you find texture, along with those peach and plum skin smells. Same grape variety, but dramatically different wines. The same thing is going to be true when you compare Albariños from different regions in California. If you want a fruit-forward example, try one of the many grown around Lodi. Priced for everyday consumption, but not my personal cup of tea. Simple, was the descriptor I used several times.
Based on evidence from the TAPAS tasting, I’m drawn to further exploration of Albariño from coastal vineyards in the New World. Ken Volk’s Albariño was very nice in a restrained style, with hints of both fruit and salt. Think melon wrapped in prosciutto. Bob Lindquist, of Qupé fame and arguably California’s first Rhône Ranger, was there pouring two Albariños (www.verdad.com) made by his wife Louisa. The one from their own vineyard had a bracing acid backbone with hints of caraway in the nose. Perfect for steamed clams. The bargain of the day was a finely honed example from Tangent with big passion fruit and a whack of lemon on the nose. It is sold to restaurants in kegs, and priced at the equivalent of $15 per bottle retail (www.nivenfamilywines.com).
My favorite Albariño of the day though offered a good lesson in how vintage conditions need to be overlain upon anyone’s concept of terroir. The wine came from Paso Robles, a warm inland location, but was grown during the 2011 vintage, which was exceptionally cold. The winery is called Bodegas Paso Robles (www.bodegaspasorobles.com), and they only made 160 cases. Price is $22 a bottle. The wine had lots of acid and complexity. In the nose there was a bit of that salt and melon trick, but great peachy length in the mouth marshaled between the lines by ropes of minerality. For the first time I could see the comparison to German Spätlesen Riesling. And I liked it. A lot. The perfect match would be that Spanish bar dish of grilled octopus (pulpo a la parilla) with onions and potatoes in a rich, salty fish sauce. Talk about memorable ~ makes my mouth water just to think about it.