Albariño…even as recently as ten years ago, I’d go to a dinner or picnic where I knew seafood or shellfish or a pork roast or grilled poultry was being served and – being the communal wine geek – I’d be asked to bring a wine. About 90% of the time, I’d bring an Albariño. Two reactions made up about 85% of the feedback I got, upon slappin’ the bottle down on the counter:
- “Huh? I thought you’d be bringing a Chardonnay! Uh…why didn’t you bring a Chardonnay?”
- “Uh…I was expecting a red.” (uttered with an icy stare)
Let’s just get this right out there: I am so profoundly bored with Chardonnay that I cringe at the very sight of the word in print. Really. I taste the occasional one that is very good, because Chardonnay is a very fine wine grape, but any mystery and allure the stuff may have had has long since been burnt out by the sheer, unrelenting, quotidian, utterly predictable omnipresence of it.
But there are something on the order of 700 different white grapes from which wine is made, on this planet today, and, in this country, we basically see, on our store shelves and in restaurants…six. Six grapes out of over 700 make up 95%+ of all the wines we’ll see on shelves. Six. There are a scattered few others that we may find, if the shop is particularly resourceful, but we drink Chardonnay, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling…and…go ahead. Name another one. Difficult, isn’t it? (Okay, Gewurtztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Verdejo, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Prosecco – actually made from a grape called Glera – and Moscato…and all these are very minor players) Those four grapes account for 88% of all white wines sold by American wine vendors, and out of that range, in most stores, Chardonnay will make up better than 2/3 of the available bottles.
Okay, rant over…but I’ve been on a very lonely and somewhat quixotic Quest, for about 25 years, now, to shove Americans off the Chard Teat. I’m losing badly. But I DO try and occasionally have the satisfaction f having someone text me for a recommendation for a great Viognier or Verdejo or Verdicchio or Torrontes…or Albariño. And then all the hair-yanking is worth it…sorta.
That reaction I got after showing the bottle is about 180 degrees opposite of what I get after pouring it and getting some Albariño. into somebody’s mouth. Then, the response is usually either “Mmmmm!” or “Oh, Wow!”
Albariño is a grape native to northern Spain and Portugal, where it’s called “Alvarinho”. (The Porties can’t leave anything alone.) It’s the base grape for the Portuguese Vino Verde wines from a couple of smaller appellations but is generally vinified as a still white, with some modest aging. Albariño is lush. It’s not quite as big and viscous as Viognier or one of those greasy, oak-drenched California Chards but the native character is generous flavors in a firmly medium/full-bodied wine. It shows lovely, bright acids that made it a killer pairing with a LOT of foods, many of which would sometimes call for a red. I’ve sometimes used the same nutshell description for it that I use for Viognier, its decadent French cousin: “Chardonnay on Steroids”. It’s been one of my favorite white wines for two decades, now, and I was actually acknowledged for my passion for it in a Spanish wine blog, years ago, where I was called “The American ‘Riño Fanatic“. I am irrationally proud of that label and may get t-shirts someday.
Recently, I was sent two bottles of the wines from Rias Baixas (pron: REE-ahs BY-shas), a major source of the grape and producer of many of the world’s best Albariño wines. I wanted to mention these two, especially, and then give you two more to try, as these two were a classic snapshot of the two major schools of thought about what this fascinating grape can be and how you go about turning it into wine.
From Vinas e Adegas Galegas, a winery in Meder, Pontevedre, Spain, comes a textbook example of a dry Albariño, D. Pedro De Souto Maior Albariño 2015, in which the grape’s natural fruitiness has been somewhat muted, in favor of a bangin’ crispness and bracing minerality which cleanly portrays the stony soils of the Rias Baixas growing area.It’s a delightful white to sit and sip but blossoms when paired with foods and becomes one of the two or three best wines I’ve tasted in the past ten years with shellfish – any type of shellfish. With langostinos, this wine may be the definitive match. It works just as well with our Pacific and Atlantic shrimp, too, and even matches with crawfish and the far trickier mussels, in which the briny goodness of the meat brings out a lovely, subdued sweetness in the wine. The flavors run strongly to red and green apples, citrus peels, honeydew melon, gooseberry, quince, yellow flowers, and sweet herbs, with a fine-grained underlay of the fabulous minerals that Rias Baixas is noted for. This is Albariño’s younger, lighter, more purely refreshing side and will age a bit…but why would you want to? Drink up, they’ll make more! 93 Points
Maria Victoria Davalos Mendez makes the sublime Veiga Naum Albariño 2014, under the loose umbrella of the larger wine company, Bodegas Riojanas. This is the more expansive, slightly fruit-sweet, viscous, palate-painting form of Albariño that we in the US are more used to seeing and is a brilliant example of how this grape, from the exact same growing area, can show such stark variations. Veiga Naum is fat, full-bodied, vivid, and broad, finishing long and slow and emphatically, with the wine’s beautiful yellow apples, Bosc pears, fig, jasmine, and stone fruit notes lingering as a seamless whole that decays like a struck chapel bell. At about $15 a bottle, it’s one hell of a deal on the sort of big white that Chard freaks go for but, unlike a lot of the knee-jerk California oaky/vanilla cream Chards, its flavors are clean and unmasked by any artifice. Because of our American passion for wines as sippers (and, frankly, because we’re such Chardonnay addicts) this wine will seem a lot more familiar for those lazy afternoon gab-fests on the back deck but will also knock you slap out as a pairing for grilled pork loin, elaborate green salads with mixed seafood, clams, mussels, roasted chicken, and even a Cubano sandwich(!), which goes with this wine like they were separated at birth. This is a big, lovely, and mouth-filling white but is also shockingly light on the palate. It’s definitely NOT too full for summer drinking and is THE thing for introducing this dazzling grape to a bunch of friends, who will immediately think you’re Cool. 93 Points
Javier Alfonso is a frighteningly intelligent young man who moved to Seattle and became an engineer but missed his family’s 200-year-old grape growing estates in Spain’s Ribera del Duero region and started making wine here, just to drink at home. The apple – maybe make that “grape” – doesn’t fall far from the vine, though, and word soon got out that Javier was making wines that you MUST taste. Eventually, he opened Pomum Cellars, in one of suburban Woodinville’s wine-friendly industrial parks and the rest is history. Still shockingly under-the-radar, Pomum makes a jaw-dropping array of wines based on Bordeaux, Rhone, and Spanish grapes, with a gorgeous Albariño bottled under his Spanish label, Idilico Wines. Sourced from a remote six-acre plot in the Yakima Valley, just north of Prosser, Washington, this 2013 Idilico Albariño takes the Veiga Naum template and amps it up just a bit, resulting in a wine that screams “Spain!” while clearly expressing the quirky, distinctive terroir of the Yakima Valley, a wild mix of alluvial and volcanic soils that imparts all sorts of amazing background notes. Dripping ripe apples, pear butter, cantaloupe, fresh cream, spices, and flower petals, this Idilico is state-of-the-art American Albariño, from an area of the world which is, in my opinion, clearly the best growing region for Spanish varietals in the western hemisphere. Idilico also produces bottlings of Monastrell, Tempranillo, Garnacha, and even a Graciano Reserva(!) that all carry the Pomum signature of precise and yet unfettered winemaking skill. Pomum has somehow remained one of the Northwest’s best-kept winery secrets, which may have something to do with its owner’s resolutely laid-back personality and an amiability that probably works at odds with the sort of relentless self-promotion that makes some wineries “Pop”. Make no mistake about it, though: this is, in my opinion, one of the three best domestic Albariños made by anybody in the US. 94 Points
Marimar Estate 2014 Don Miguel Vineyard Estate Grown and Bottled Albariño (Russian River Valley) is yet another “back to the roots” project from a Spanish transplant, the near-legendary Marimar Torres, sister of Spanish wine legend, Miguel Torres of Bodegas Torres. Marimar originally come to the US as the American sales representative of her family’s wines but fell in love with California and moved here permanently in 1975. Her Marimar Estate produces straight-up fabulous Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and one Spanish grape: this stunning Albariño. Sourced from the vineyard she planted in honor of her late father, Don Miguel Torres, this is luscious, rich, expressive white wine that coaxes every flavor Sonoma’s Russian River Valley can produce in this grape. White flowers, sweet herbs, tree fruit – peaches, apricots, Asian pears, and Granny Smith apple – and a hint of jasmine and white pepper on the finish. This is as fine, in its own, different way, as are the other three but may well be easier for you to find, given Marimar Torres’ far better distribution. The estate is one of the true gems of the Sonoma wine community and, take it from an old chef, the cookbooks from Marimar, herself, are all you’ll need to make Spanish food that would fool a native. Marimar Torres is a genuine treasure who takes nothing less than the best that her literal lifetime in wine tells her is good enough for her legion of fans…of which I am very much one. 94 points