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Jefford on Monday: Royal – Or Magic?

Discoveries without end: that's why we revere wine.

Albillo Real 2014 fermenting at Bernabeleva (Image: Andrew Jefford)

I’ve just had my first smell and taste of the 2014 harvest in the northern hemisphere. A quarter-century on the wine road, yet here was a completely new grape variety to me, wriggling and flexing with personality like some freshly landed fish. Its wine – perfumed, rule-bending, enigmatic – came into being in a setting of struggle and grandeur I never knew existed. That such discoveries might constitute even part of the fabric of a working life is true good fortune.

The Gredos mountains are only an hour west from Madrid, but it feels like a journey in time as well as space: donkeys still haul ploughs here; Saturdays are for selling your tomatoes on the town square; an old metal bedframe will always look forward to a second life as a vineyard gate. The area is chiefly known for its astonishing old-vine Garnachas: pure and limpid, testifying to their altitude, aspect and soil type with remarkable fidelity. But the Gredos also has ‘a little white one’.

Actually many regions in Spain have ‘a little white one’, which is why Albillo is such a frustrating synonym. This, though, is Albillo Real or ‘the royal little white one’. According to Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz’s invaluable Wine Grapes, this is one of only two Albillo varieties with a unique DNA profile which is still cultivated to any significant extent, the other one being Ribera del Duero’s Albillo Mayor. The locals say that it made ‘precious’ court wine (vino precioso) in Spain’s golden age, hence its royalty: a sweet wine, back then, sipped by Lope de Vega, Queveda and Góngora. (Today it’s usually dry.) They also say it has an earlier history still in this part of Spain, with documentary records back to the seventh century (remarkable if true), and was one of the varieties which survived the Moorish occupation – because it was good to eat.

In contrast to Garnacha, which is often not picked until October on the higher slopes of the Gredos, Albillo Real has a very short growing season, and all of the vineyards of its low, sprawling bush vines had been harvested when I roamed the Gredos during the third week of August, though this summer has not been an exceptionally hot one. There were baskets of Albillo Real on the lunch table: neat little bunches of petite grapes, green to honeyed amber in colour. Like the Moors, I tucked in. And fell into a new enigma as I did so.

The grapes themselves taste sweet and fresh, though not particularly acid (less acid, for example, than the Moscatels which also grow here); sure enough, Albillo Real makes a statuesque but low-acid white (around 4 g/l of acidity, with a pH of 3.4 to 3.6). It draws its balance from two sources.

The first is soil and stone: this is one of those wines which seems to evoke the surroundings in which it grows, and in particular the granite sands of the lower slopes of the Gredos, via its unfruity substance. There often seems to be a faintly saline note to the wines, too, particularly those grown close to the town of St Martín de Valdeiglesias. “For me,” says Fernando García Alonso, “Albillo and Garnacha are complete opposites. Albillo looks down into the soil; Garnacha looks up into the air. Garnacha is a red wine with the soul of a white; Albillo is a white wine with the soul of a red.” Where those ‘stony’ notes come from, in this wine or any wine, is an old enigma.

The new enigma, for me at any rate, is the perfume of honey and peach, of balsam and membrillo which many of the best Albillo Real wines have. Where does this come from? It seemed to be entirely absent in the grapes themselves, once again in contrast to the overtly grapy Moscatels, even when I worked their skins with my teeth. This is a pretty grape, but not a scented one. Somehow, in other words, it was acquiring these beguiling perfumes during its fermentation and maturation, though they are unlike any of the typically confused fruity or estery aromas I tend to associate with transformed must. How could this happen? Forget royal; it seemed almost magical.

Given the granite sands, the steep slopes, the shy plants, the low yields and the rich, perfumed, low-acid, stone-dense flavours, it’s not hard to see Albillo Real from the Gredos as a kind of Spanish echo of Viognier or Condrieu. Like that almost paradoxical wine, it takes well to oak if the two are brought together with a subtle hand. But it can, too, topple into corpulence on occasion; given that its alcohol levels are never lower than 13.5% and sometimes exceed 15%, it needs to be richly constituted in other respects if it is not to seem hot. But the best – such as those listed below — are satisfyingly gastronomic, and quite unlike any other Spanish whites I know.

The Gredos mountains, by the way, don’t get a name check in any existing Spanish DO, since they are dissected by three different Spanish provinces (Madrid, Ávila and Toledo) and even three different Spanish autonomous communities or regions (Madrid, Castilla y Léon and Castilla-La Mancha). Albillo Real does form part of the ‘Garnachas de Gredos’ group, though not all producers use this branding on their labels – look out for Albillo Real in the Madrid and Méntrida DOs, and as a Vino de la Tierra from Castilla y Léon.

Vinos Ambiz: 2013 Albillo (peachy, made in natural-wine style)
Bernabeleva: 2013 Cantocuerdas (full, chewy)
4 Monos: 2013 Cadalso de los Vidrios (amply aromatic: honey, flowers and nougat; weighty yet delicate on the palate)
* Marañones: 2012 Picarana (elegant, with the saline San Martín style) and 2012 Piesdescalzos (balanced, concentrated and full of finesse)
Zerberos/Daniel Ramos: 2010 Viento Zephyros (70 per cent Albillo plus 30 per cent Sauvignon Blanc grown on granite: mellow, with balsamic complexities), 2010 Vino Precioso Seco (also faintly saline, biscuity and herbal) and 2010 Vino Precioso Dulce (a pure Albillo made as a sweet wine in a nod to Spain’s Golden Age: full of soft citrus)

Written by Andrew Jefford

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