This special 8-week series introduces the world’s best grape varieties for summer. Each week a new variety is introduced with details on wine styles, regions, producers and summer foods to enjoy with the featured wines. The first piece is about Albarino.
There are several good ways to learn more about wines, for instance understanding the region, the producer and the winemaking methods. But perhaps the best approach is learning about the different grapes that are used to make wines.
Adopting this approach, this week I begin my mini-series on grapes that make the best summer wines.
My first variety is also the most obscure of my summer picks, the Albarino grape. If you’ve never heard of this grape you shouldn’t feel so bad unless of course you’re Spanish or fancy yourself up-to-date on what’s new and chic in the wine world.
This quintessential Spanish white wine grape makes some of the most fresh and lively white wines, fully qualifying it as a sensational summer varietal.
Albarino is first and foremost a Spanish grape but the variety is also cultivated in Portugal and more recently in northwestern US and Australia.
The popularity and even cult status in many of the world’s trendiest wine markets means we should expect to see a lot more of this fresh little grape.
There’s a mystery surrounding the origin of the Albarino grape. Traditionally, wine historians and etymologists believed the grape was related to the German Riesling variety, most likely brought by Germans making pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint James the Great in Santiago de Compstela in northwestern Spain. Others speculated that Cluny monks from the Loire Valley brought the grape to Spain.
Both theories have always been fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions as the documented existence of Albarino predates the Riesling variety as well as the pilgrimages of the Cluny monks.
The most popular present day hypothesis on the origin of Albarino grapes holds that it is indigenous to Galicia in northwest Spain. Regardless of its somewhat mysterious past, the grape has a promising future.
By leaps and bounds the most important region making Albarino wines is Rias Biaxas in Galicia. While the grape has many centuries of cultivation in the region, the Rias Biaxas DO was formerly established only in 1988.
DO in Spain is like AC in France or DOC in Italy, in other words an official body or consortium that oversees the adherence of permitted varieties, viticultural practices and winemaking including aging. In Rias Baixas and other regions in Europe the formation of these official bodies has almost always led to a dramatic improvement in the quality of wines.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Rias Baixas on several occasions and its one of the most idyllically beautiful spots in Europe. Mountainous and lusciously green, this region boarders the Atlantic Ocean and is replete with wide and deep inlets that traverse many miles inland.
Adorning the hills are rolling vineyards of Albarino that thrive in the damp often rainy climate. Most grapes prefer drier more sunny weather but the small thick-skinned Albarino is able to gradually ripen and retain acidity in this challenging climate.
In Spain, Rias Baixas is Albarino and Albarino is Rias Baixas.
The grape is however cultivated elsewhere including the neighboring Portuguese region of Vinho Verde where the variety is used to make light wines with zesty grapefruit qualities.
In large part due to the success of Rias Baixas Albarinos, producers in California and Pacific Northwest have also started cultivating the variety with some notable success. Two of the best California producers are Marinmar Estates and Paragon Vineyards.
The first words out of most wine connoisseurs’ mouths when counseling about the drinking of Albarino wines are almost always to drink these charmers young and well-chilled. Aromas and flavors in these wines typically include lively citrus, apple, almond and grass.
What makes Albarino wines so attractive is that aromatic and flavor sensations literally jump out of the glass with an unbridled exuberance seldom seen in other wines. These wines are downright fun. The bracing acidity of most Albarino wines is also a quality that endears them to wine lovers and makes them ideal summer quenchers.
Consistently fine examples of these young and fun wines you can find in Shanghai are made by the Rias Biaxas producers Vionta, Martin Codex, Pazo de Senoras, Lagar de Fornelos, Adegas d’Altmira and Pazo de Barrantes.
While these vibrantly fresh young wines is making Albarino wines famous, some Rias Baixas winemakers are rejecting this somewhat narrow definition of their beloved grape. Instead they are now making more serious, dare I say age-worthy Albarinos. Using older vines with extremely limited yields and fermenting and aging in oak, winemakers are working to redefine our conceptions of both the precincts and the potential of Albarino wines. Initial results are promising.
Proximity aside, another big reason why people refer to Albarino wines as the “wines of the sea” are their near magical affinity for all things seafood.
Simply put, Albarino wines are among the best wines in the world to enjoy with seafood. Their excellent acidic backbone brightens and accentuates the natural flavors and freshness of shellfish and fish alike.
Galicia, where the Rias Baixas region is located, is known for some of Spain’s best seafood including mussels, clams, oysters, shrimp, crabs and lobster as well as monkfish, turbot, sea bass, sole and sardines.
Perhaps my favorite combination is steamed or grilled octopus sprinkled with olive oil and paprika and served with a chilled glass of Albarino. Summer doesn’t get any better than this.