David 19 May 2016
Albariño is Spain's most famous white wine. Its heartland is Galicia in northwest Spain, although you’ll find it too across the border in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal, where it’s known as Alvarinho. It’s one of the few Spanish wines known by variety rather than by region.
Galicia is bordered by the Atlantic on both the north and west, its stunning rocky coastline characterised by ‘rias’ (river valleys or coastal inlets) that often reach tens of kilometres inland. Its close proximity to the ocean profoundly affects the climate which is wet with high rainfall (1,600mm pa), sea fogs and moderate temperatures. Interestingly, as well as grapes there are also major plantings of eucalyptus trees (for timber and paper) in Galicia.
Within Galicia, there are several wine regions, the most prestigious of which is Rías Baixas (ree-as bye-shass). Not only famous for its wine, it’s a place of great natural beauty, pretty villages and delicious seafood. It also produces the finest Albariños in Spain. The variety accounts for an astounding 90% of plantings here.
Rías Baixas is a series of geographically separate subzones that stretch a total of 48km along the Galician coast, just north of the border with Portugal. The are 5 subzones:
The region has experienced extraordinary growth in the past 35 years. In 1987 there were 237ha of vines and 14 wineries. In the following year Rías Baixas was officially established as a Denominación de Origen (DO) and plantings of vines more than doubled to 585ha, as did the number of wineries (bodegas) which jumped to 30. And so it continues. In 2012 there were 4,048ha of vines with 6,712 small growers and 177 wineries.
The small berry and thick skins of the Albariño grape are well suited to the high humidity and associated fungal diseases of Rías Baixas. Pergolas were traditionally used in the region to assist airflow around the vines. Nowdays wire trellising systems are used by some estates to do this.
Here’s an interesting story. At the turn of the last century, Albariño was identified as ideally suited to the Australian climate. The CSIRO imported and released large numbers of the vines to local growers, many seeing it as the next big thing. But in a 2009 shock announcement, the CSIRO revealed that the majority of the plantings thought to be Albariño were in fact the French variety Savagnin (not Sauvignon) Blanc, a clone of Gewürztraminer grown in the Jura region of France. Zut alors!
Albariño is intensely aromatic and naturally high in acidity. Jancis Robinson referred to it as “the perfumed aristocrat of Galicia.” It’s fragrant yet dry and I find it rather like Riesling with its citrus and floral notes, and Viognier with its richer, apricot and peach notes. I like this description: “The best varietal wines combine aromas and flavours that are both fruity and floral - from linden, orange, acacia blossom through lemongrass and honeysuckle to orange, dried orange peel, grapefruit, bergamot, peach and, in some cases, green apple. Fresh acidity balances the full body and firm structure and there can often be a marine note, reminding the taster how well these wines go with seafood.” Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson.
Winemaking in Rías Baixas is modern, with temperature controlled ferments and stainless steel tanks bringing out the best of Albariño's delicate varietal flavour. Most examples are bright, fresh and crisp - designed to be enjoyed young, but a few are now being made in a richer, more textured style, with a touch of oak and which can be aged a few years.
Unfortunately difficult growing conditions and worldwide popularity means Albariño tends to be pricey, but I have a couple that I think are great value.
Established in 1996, Pazos de Lusco is located in the Condado do Tea subregion, close to the Rio (river) Miño, which marks the border with Portugal. The founders managed to purchase the highly prized Pazo Piñeiro vineyard, a 5ha site planted entirely with Albariño, grown on the traditional pergola system. It’s an absolute gem. The estate also came with the magnificent 16th century Bugallal House. In 2009 a state-of-the-art winery was constructed in the heart of the vineyard - unusual for a region characterised by small growers, most without their own facilities.
The vineyard is run on organic principles with herbicides and pesticides banned. This is a big deal in a region like Rías Biaxas with its extremely high rainfall and propensity for fungal disease. Yields in the vineyard have been reduced to a third of that permitted in the appellation and picking is done by hand. In the winery there’s a similar ‘natural’ ethos with a preference for wild yeasts.
The estate makes 3 Albariños, the ‘Zios’ (twilight) is their entry level wine. It’s 100% Albariño, sourced from 25 year old vines. A hand sorting table is used to ensure individual grape quality, unusual not only for a wine of this price but also for Rías Baixas in general. The standard practice for making white wine involves pressing the grapes as soon as they reach the winery, but here the grapes are gently crushed (not completely pressed out) and given 2 hours for the grape pulp and skins to soak in contact with the juice, adding weight and texture. After this the grapes are pressed and the juice fermented using wild yeasts in stainless steel. It then spends 3 months in tank on lees (dead yeast cells) to once again build the texture and flavour.
You can see why Pazos de Lusco is so highly regarded - with such an emphasis on quality, this wine gets much of the same treatment as their more expensive ones.
The wine is a clear rich gold. You’ll find mouthwatering aromas of lime, sweet white peach, honeysuckle and musk. A soft texture is balanced with plenty of clean, dry and refreshing acidity. No need to put this one in the cellar, drink now and enjoy its youthful freshness.
“With zingy flavours of lemon, grapefruit, and elderflower, not only is there a surfeit of cool, sculpted fruit but also a refreshing Atlantic 'bite' and a spotless, lingering finish.” Bibendum Wine Co.
“Nose - Intense and fresh nose, with remarkable aromas of green and citrics fruits, combined with touches of bread and nuts coming from its ageing in tank over lees. Palate - Mellow in palate, with intense acidity and moderate alcohol; citric and remarked flavours of lemon, grapefruit, elderflower and fresh almonds. It also has a refreshing mouth-feel with long palate.” Winemakers notes.
This is a popular wine around town. For good reason - it’s the best at this great price point.
In breaking news, just last month Pazos de Lusco was acquired by leading Spanish wine and sherry producer Gonzalez Byass. A big company, with high quality brands - obviously they’ve realised the quality of this producer!
I can offer it for $28 a bottle. Click here to order.
This is the wine that got me into Albariño. I tasted a previous vintage with winemaker Alex Head at Mr Wong restaurant a few years ago and it's stuck in my mind. This is what good Albariño is all about.
Bodegas de Palacios de Fefiñanes is considered the benchmark Albariño producer. It’s the oldest and most historic producer. The estate dates back to 1904, but it was in 1928 that they became the first producer ever to bottle Albariño. They were also the first to include the term Rías Baixas on the label.
The bodega (winery) is based in the seaside town of Cambados, which prides itself on being Albariño's capital. The winery occupies part of a 17th century palace on Plaza de Fefiñanes, the beautiful central square of Cambados from which the estate takes its name.
The estate is owned by respected winemaker Juan Gil, full name: Juan Gil de Araújo Careaga the Marquis de Figueroa. He’s aided by the highly talented Cristina Mantilla, who consults at several other prestigious estates in Galicia. Palacio de Fefiñanes has only a token acreage and purchases fruit from around 60 growers, many in prime positions. The average vine age is 40 years, although some are over 100, all are trained on trellises.
The estate makes 3 wines and this is their entry level one in a traditional style of Rías Baixas white. It’s 100% Albariño and is fermented in stainless steel vats at a controlled temperature.
The wine is a clear, light yellow-gold. The nose is lifted, aromatic and enticing, with notes of lemon curd, kiwi fruit, apples and musk - deliciousness that follows through to the palate. Zingy sherbert acidity keeps this refreshingly crisp and dry. Such finesse and delicacy. But what I love about this wine is its long, lean structure and beautiful balance - the hallmarks of quality and what makes this wine such a gratifying mouthful.
“This attractive white wine shows the great Albariño grape in all its splendour. Fresh fruit, floral notes and a subtle herbaceous element combine magnificently to produce this enticing silky white, with pleasing minerality and refreshing acidity. Balanced, distinctive and elegant. It has a long life ahead in which to be enjoyed.” Winemaker’s tasting notes.
You'll find it at Merivale's terrific Mr Wong restaurant for $95 a bottle.
I can offer it for $40 a bottle. Click here to order.