Generally when people’s minds drift towards the world of wine and those history-covered countries that form Europe’s fiery underskirt, the Mediterranean, they may well chance upon Spain. If that happens they, they being my favourite kind of people – wine-drinkers – will probably think of something potent and red.
Despite having 70 wine regions and despite making every kind of wine imaginable (red, white, rosé, fortified, aromatised, sparkling, box, sweet, orange…the list goes on), your average Joe will probably instantly think of red, maybe Rioja; rarely white.
This is a shame because there are around 15 native varieties; and we plant everything from Chardonnay to Riesling.
Today we are going to meet the cream of the crop: Albariño.
- The grape grows in fat bunches of little, perfectly spherical green-orange orbs with thick protective skins. This could be Spain’s answer to Pinot Gris/Grigio.
- Saying the grape is small is an understatement. It’s the smallest white wine grape in the world.
- The grapes are sweet and high in glycerol making wines that are big on alcohol and acidity.
- The grape is grown almost exclusively in Spain and Portugal, though there are grapes planted in both the US and even the UK (check out the Chapel Down winery in Kent).
- 90% of the wine in the region of Rías Baixas – in the northwest Spanish community of Galicia – is Albariño.
- It is thought that Albariño was brought to Iberia by Cluny monks in the 12th century. The name, Alba-Riño means ‘white wine of the Rhine’. Locally, it was thought to be a clone of Riesling, but it has also been thought to be a relative of Petit Manseng, a French grape.
- Goes by the name Alvarinho (or Cainho Branco) in Portugal, where it is a major component of the country’s delightfully crisp and slightly effervescent Vinho Verde.
- The grapes are grown in an unusual way: on high trellises, called parrales, so they don’t touch the ground but also get maximum sun exposure. Also, because Galicia is wet and soggy, this protects the grapes from rot and fungal infections.
- All harvesting is done by hand.
- Historically it was blended was other local Galician grapes such as Loureiro, Godello, Caiño, Arinto or Treixadura; but modern winemakers are realising its talent for single varietal wines.
- Australia had, somewhat comically, been accidentally selling incorrect Albariño wines for about a decade; thinking they were helping to inject money into the Albariño market. They had been selling the French Savagnin instead!
- In Spain it can also be found growing in Ribeiro and Valdeorras; but here it is often blended.
- Albariño is famous for making very aromatic, crisp, fruity and acidic wines. They are legendary for the lemony, lime freshness as well as a punch of peaches , grapefruits, and melons plus a touch of minerality.
- They can be light and imperceptibly sparkling, full-bodied and mouth coating and also, thanks to that acidity, aged on lees or in oak. Very versatile.
- There is no wine in Spain that pairs better with seafood that a big, chilled glass of Albariño. The old maxim of local wines with local food works here. Atlantic seafood – prawns, octopus, clams, squid, lobster – pairs perfectly with these wines.
- Albariño is mostly grown in the Rías Baixas DO – a windswept world of vast Scandiwegian estuaries, rumbling hills, and eucalyptus forests. The DO, though fairly small, is split up into five subzones:
- Val do Salnés: low and wavy hills by the coast. Rocky and alluvial soils.
- O Rosal: the banks of the Miño river. Alluvial soils.
- Condado do Tea: the stepper sides of the Miño river valley. Alluvial soils.
- Soutomaior: south of Pontevedra. Light, sandy and granite-covered soils.
- Ribera de Ulla: near Santiago de Compostela. Alluvial soils.
- Many producers carry out a slow, pre-fermentation maceration to extract complexity, colour and aromas from the grapes.
- Full or partial malolactic fermentation is becoming more and more common. (Malolactic fermentation: where acidic malic acid is converted to creamier lactic acid.) This results in a smoother and silkier wine.
- When ordering wine in Spain, one usually orders by the region: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Priorat, etc. However, due to Albariño basically being from one region, the Spanish basically just order it by the grape. Albariño rolls off the drunken tongue more easily than Rías Baixas.
Spain has many other native white wines on offer; and if you are in the capital ordering a ‘vino blanco’ you will most likely be offered a crisp, dry tropical scented wine from the region of Rueda. So, if you are looking for a glass of Albariño, it pays to ask for it by name to see if they have it.
Part of the romance of Albariño, apart from the fact it is utterly and supremely lively and delicious, is the fact that it has a ‘home’; hiding out in the folklore-filled fjords and peaks of Celtic Galicia. A wet and windy place that offers, for our money, perhaps Spain’s most reliably brilliant white wine experience.