- Friday 1 June 2001
Albariño is the mainstay of quality wines produced in Spain's Rías Baíxas and Portugal's Vinho Verde. KITTY JOHNSON profiles a variety that loves rainy days and wet weekends
If I went to live in Galicia, the first thing I'd do besides eating fresh fish every day would be to open an umbrella shop at Santiago de Compostela airport. In Spain's rainiest region, this could be a real money-spinner and I happen to know there isn't one there already. Grape growers and winemakers in this northwest coastal corner of the country have also found a way to profit from the 1.5–2m of rain the region sees on average every year – they plant a variety that positively thrives in it.
The origins of the Albariño grape, or Alvarinho as it's called across the Portuguese frontier where it makes single-varietal versions of tongue-prickling Vinho Verde, are shrouded in mythology. Whether it is indigenous to Galicia, was brought from France by Raimond of Burgundy in the 11th century, or introduced by Cluny monks in the 12th, is unknown. What is certain, however, is that it has found a site it really likes, separated from the rest of Spain and surrounded by sea and mountains, in the warm and wet DO Rias Baixas (pronounced 'ree-as by-shuss').
It's a viticultural area that has had to expand in response to demand and a fourth sub-region was added to the group in 1996. The terrain shifts from flat lands in the cooler north at Val do Salnes and hilly terraces in the west at O Rosal, to the more mountainous Condado do Tea in the east and the hilly, new addition, Soutomaior. The gradient of the slopes affects the choice of planting system, although the majority of producers use the traditional pergola technique. Chosen for the beneficial shading it offers the grapes during periods when the clouds part, the system is now losing ground, especially in Condado de Tea, to the alternative, silvo (a variant of the Geneva double-curtain system). Denser planting is possible with this method, as is the increasingly popular option of mechanical harvesting. Either way, with buckets of rain around each year, the grapes are kept off the ground to reduce the risk of rot. The grape's thick yellowish-green skin also provides an effective raincoat.
Under these conditions, the Albariño prospers, bringing in permitted yields of 71.5 hectolitres per hectare (roughly twice the national average for other varieties). For a thick-skinned, many-pipped berry that doesn't produce a huge amount of juice, a high volume of grapes is vital to keep up with demand. Vintage variations are inevitable and while 1999 was a bumper crop, 2000 saw a drastic drop in grapes harvested of between 40 and 50%.The best examples are 100% of the variety but each region permits blends using varying percentages of all or some of the region's lesser-known and lesser quality choices: Loureiro, Treixadura, Torrontés and Caiño Blanco. These guys are not key players, but between them they add up to little more than 5% of total plantings in the DO. Whether it's part of a blend or a single varietal sample, the proud Galicians don't like to part with too much of their cherished Albariño. Around half of the wine produced is kept for home consumption (the lucky locals use it to wash down their limitless supply of freshly caught fish), but happily exports are on the up, with the UK, US and Germany showing most interest.The wines are aromatic and often slightly spicy with appley, peachy flavours and mouth-watering acidity. They can be either floral and citrussy or apricoty, richer and more honeyed. To extract more colour and flavour from the grapes, some winemakers swear by skin contact before fermentation. Others find the extra richness comes from lees contact afterwards.
In general, with exports on the increase there's a growing desire to vinify using oak. Most producers now make a barrel-fermented and/or matured alternative, which spends up to six months (but typically only three or four) in new American or French oak casks. Many of the wines made by this technique suggest that this kind of oak ageing, especially in American wood, is a mistake. The grape's glory is in its unique, delicately aromatic, varietal characteristics, most of which are lost by a hefty helping of vanilla from the oak. What is more surprising in a wine that has been made and marketed for knocking back with the local fresh fish and seafood is its propensity for ageing, a characteristic that can be attributed to the wine's naturally high acidity. This enables it to maintain fruity freshness while it develops a golden colour and richer flavour. A line-up of the last five vintages from producer Palacio de Fefinañes in Cambados demonstrated the concentration of flavours that can develop with time in the bottle. The wines transformed from delicate, floral, aromatic and grapey to honeyed, spicy, apricoty and even slightly smokey.
A similar intensity can also be achieved by leaving the wine on lees in the tank for longer. At Pazo de Señorans, the president of the Consejo Regulador of Rias Baixas, Marisol Bueno, produces a special selection (Seleccion de Añada Blanco) wine that is held in tank for anything up to three years. Using carefully chosen grapes from the vintage, the result is a delicious, fruity, smokily spiced, mature Riesling-style mouthful. Albariño's Spanish roots are acknowledged by the Portuguese who, in Ponte de Lima county, refer to the grape as Galego (after the local dialect of Galicia). Nevertheless, it has secured a place in northwest Portugal, where from Monção and the newer sub-region of Melgaço come fruitier, more alcoholic (13% rather than 9–10%) and age-worthy versions of the often criticised, spritzy 'green wine' Vinho Verde. At around 40 hectolitres per hectare its yields are considerably lower than in Spain, probably due to less rain and the use of a different clone. With a recommended three-year optimum drinking period, it is often heralded as Portugal's most serious white wine.
So what does the future hold for this rain-loving wonder grape? Although both Spanish and Portuguese plantings and global interest is increasing, Albariño is pricey and its wines are still fairly exclusive. The Burgundian-style feudal system of land ownership in Galicia means it's hard for the smaller growers or producers to think too big, but no doubt winemakers will continue to follow trends and experiment with different approaches to vinification. The biggest exporter, Martín Códax, even tried a late-harvest version in 1996, when weather conditions permitted it. On balance, producers should focus instead on the winning formula of lees ageing to create an added richness while respecting the grape's varietal distinction. And if you've got a recent vintage bottle at home, keep your hands off it. Find a good spot for it in the cellar and come back to it in a year or two. Chances are your patience will be rewarded.
It likes high-acid, granitic and sandy soils – and lots of rain. Its thick-skinned, yellowish-green berries ripen early.
Grown in Galicia in northwest Spain, its flavours range from floral, aromatic, citrus and peach to richer honey, spice and apricot.
Grown in the Minho in north-western Portugal, its flavours are more green apple and citrus.