Since our first, unforgettable sips of an earthy Rioja, we have come to associate Spain with wines of great swagger and spice: those inky reds and delectable, edgy sherries, fizzy Cava, and, increasingly, one truly amazing white wine, Albarino.
Made principally from grapes of the same name, Albarino (al-ba-REEN-yo) has exploded into prominence only in the past 15 years or so -- barely a blink of the eye in European winemaking history. What happened? Since its origins, Albarino had been a country-style wine, fermented outside at warm, ambient temperatures and allowed to oxidize, turning it raisiny. The wine lost much of its vitality as it fermented and settled. Albarino maintained a loyal local following, and exports were rare.
In the late 1980s, production of Albarino was overhauled after the advent of a new technology -- refrigerated stainless steel fermentation tanks that were installed throughout much of Spain's winemaking country. Refrigeration let winemakers limit oxidation and preserve the bright, fresh fruit flavors of their cherished grape.
The new-style Albarino has become popular not only in Galicia, where it is produced, but also throughout the world because it balances a crisp, lip-smacking acidity with lush, exotic floral and fruit nuances. It is a fantastic aperitif on its owntry to imagine a wine that is as minerally and racy as Sancerre or Pinot Grigio and as floral as Riesling or Viognier. But Albarino is especially delicious with food.
Galicia, bordered by the Atlantic, just above Portugal, is swept by the winds and salt spray of the ocean. Not coincidentally, the Albarino that is produced there is a perfect partner for the bounty of sea creatures served in local restaurants, especially scallops, lobsters, mussels, octopuses, and all sorts of finfish, which are frequently grilled or cooked down into rich stews. Albarino is also a fine quencher for garlicky dishes and spicy sausages.
At the white wine's core is its acidity, a Granny Smith apple personality that lends the wine an electric, almost sparkling sensation on the palate (and in many of the examples we've poured, fine bubbles develop on the inside of the glass). The Albarinos we've tasted often build on that tartness with impressions of peach and grapefruit and aromas of paperwhite and kiwi. Many times, we detect an almondlike note.
The Albarino grape is particularly thick-skinned, which helps it ward off the molds, mildew, and fungal diseases that could develop in the moist air of Rias Baixas (REE-as BY-shas), the wine region that became known for growing Albarino around 1988. The word rias refers to the shellfish-rich fjords that cut in from the Atlantic along the jagged Galician coast. The high trellising of the vines in the area is distinctive and helps to minimize wetness by letting more air circulate through the grape clusters.
As attractive and singular as they are, the wines made from Albarino grapes can have different personalities depending on who makes them. They can range from lean and light, with a sense of green herbs, to richer, more golden wines with riper fruit flavors and a creamier texture, more like a California Chardonnay.
Some winemakers are even experimenting with oak aging of their Albarinos, to give them a deeper, more classical white-wine flavor. All that wood and effort adds to the price of the wine, which is already quite high (most bottles are $10 to $40) due to the demand for Albarino worldwide. In general, but especially in summer, we prefer the fresher, less serious interpretations, which fit more within our budget and seem closer to the breezy, seaside spirit of Albarino.
Just in Time for Summer, A Truly Amazing White
Portal do Fidalgo Alvarinho
This Portuguese wine (2006, $20), made from Albarino grapes grown over the border from Rias Baixas, is an exceptional value. With glorious, full-bodied sensations of honey and green herbs, it would pair brilliantly with Spanish dishes such as stuffed piquillo peppers and tortilla espanola.
Granbazan Albarino Ambar
Free-run grape juicethe liquid released before the grapes have even been pressed -- distinguishes Granbazan's Albarino (2005, $23), which is slightly golden in color. Its banana scent and rich peach-leather flavor would make it a great sip with summery desserts, including peach custard pie.
Do Ferreiro Albarino
Forceful lime notes make this bottling (2006, $27) a particularly nice match for simple shellfish dishes, such as lobster with drawn butter. The sandy, granite soil of the Salnes Valley vineyards comes through in this renditions Chablis-like minerality.
Don Olegario Albarino
An undertone of golden raisin enriches the lively Granny Smith and grapefruit flavors of this Albarino (2006, $22). It's a superb pairing for spicy foods, such as grilled chicken marinated with lime juice and jalapeno.
Pazo de Senorans Albarino
The attractive floral aromas of honeysuckle and paperwhite in this wine (2006, $29) give way to flavors of white peach and grape that linger on the palate and then finish with a crackling tartness. It's on the pricier side of the Albarino spectrum, but it's the perfect aperitif for a special occasion.