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Origins of Albariño – Ask Decanter

When was the first written evidence of the Albariño grape?

Wim Schoordijk, The Netherlands, asks: In Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW’s interesting article on Alvarinho and Albariño (March 2020 issue), he writes that there is no written evidence of either until the 19th century.

But on the back label of the Albariño IGP Aude made by Laurent Miquel, who is based in St-Chinian, Languedoc, it states that Albariño was first brought to Spain’s Galicia region by French monks from Cluny centuries ago. Can you explain this discrepancy?

Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW, a widely published wine writer and educator, and a DWWA Joint Regional Chair for Spain, replies: The amazing number of producers claiming that grapes were brought by monks from Cluny might suggest that those monks were the Amazon Prime of the Middle Ages! Such producers want to get historical legitimacy by linking their wines to a noble past.

However, in this case, it has been demonstrated that there is no parentage between Albariño/Alvarinho and Burgundy grape varieties – Cluny is close to the Mâcon region. For a long time, it was thought that Albariño was related to Savagnin from Jura, but DNA analysis proved this also incorrect.

In viticultural terms, there is no similarity between Albariño and the Burgundy grapes. One of Albariño’s most pertinent features is its capacity to grow in a very humid climate, being well adapted to pergola trellising systems – unlike the characteristics of Chardonnay. Albariño also produces relatively high malic acid, while continental varieties don’t.

The first written reference to Alvarinho dates from 1843, but it is very likely an ancient variety. In Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding & Vouillamoz), it is mentioned that a parcel with 200- to 300-year-old Albariño vines has been observed. The only relevant monastery in the region is in Ribeiro, where field blends including Treixadura, Loureiro and some others are amazingly unique, and well documented in historic terms. Ribadavia, the name by which Ribeiro wines were known in the 16th century, was indeed a most appreciated style in England at that time.

Single-variety Albariño/Alvarinho wines are produced in rather marginal areas and achieved prominence only in the 20th century, thanks to the dramatic improvement in technical and social conditions in Portugal’s Salnés and Monçao & Melgaço (Vinho Verde) areas.

Aiming for high-quality wines, the Cluny monks used the varieties that worked best, blending as necessary and experimenting with crossings. What monks brought with them was primarily know-how and a vision. They created terroirs through hard work, time, study and observation, and varieties are secondary to that. In northwest Spain, you’ll find monasteries in Ribera del Duero, but no trace of any Burgundy varieties – the same in Priorat, Navarra and some other regions.

I hope that your wine is good. I’m curious to find out how Albariño can ripen while keeping its acidity and fruit expression in such a Mediterranean climate.

This question first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Decanter magazine.

See also: 

10 great value Albariño wines under £20

Aged Alvarinhos from Quinta de Soalheiro

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