This week I’ve been trying a few Albarinos, a great white from the Rias Baixas region of Spain. In this northwest coastal corner of Spain, Albarino has been one of the workhorse whites for decades, though traditionally it would have been a component of a blended wine. The Rias Baixas DO was only established in 1986, and in the intervening years Albarino has come to account for almost 90% of the vines in the Rias Baixas. More incredible than that was the explosion of area under vines, which attests to the popularity of Albarino. A mere 237 hectares in 1987 has ballooned into almost 4,000 hectares today! So, was all that planting worth it?
Whether the “best” vineyard lay in one or the other of Rias Baixas’ five distinct subzones is a matter of personal preference; my money is on the Ribeira do Ulla, responsible not only for Albarino, but home to those freaking delicious Padron peppers that everybody’s frying up right about now!
Ok, so that’s no way to choose a favorite, but it might as well be. As you can imagine, with so much land under vine there are a lot of bottlings from which to choose. There are some 20,000 vineyards planted to Albarino in Rias Baixas, a startling little factoid that may have no bearing on the current question, but makes my Pardon-influenced answer a little more compelling.
As you might expect, this stretch of the Spanish coast is home to rather cool and somewhat damp conditions. While summer daytime highs can be downright hot, the region is blessed with the kind of conditions perfect for the production of Albarino. These conditions allow the wines to express their fruit flavors (which range from citrus to orchard fruit and at their best touching on peach and apricot) while retaining zesty, fresh acidity and a wonderful mineral tone.
These are wines that bask in their purity, bracing acidity and near-saline minerality. Many producers have been tempted to begin to soften the edges of these sometimes-assertive wines by barrel fermenting and allowing the wines to go through partial malolactic fermentation, but to my mind this is mostly a misguided exercise. These are wines of character -- their own character -- and trying to make them into something that they’re not cannot benefit Albarino as a whole.
The growth of the US export market from half a million liters in 2004 to a million and a half liters in 2008 attests to the fact that these wines are finding a healthy market. What’s even more amazing is that while those exports to the US account for 48% of total exports, total exports only account for about 20% of annual sales. Not only do we love this stuff, the way it is, but the Spanish seem to be keeping the lion's share for themselves, and it’s easy to see why.
Albarino is a great addition to anyone’s white wine repertoire. It’s a fruity wine at times, but balanced and fresh, and it loves to be served with food. I find it goes wonderfully with seafood, and particularly well with my clam and chorizo pasta sauce! There certainly are many examples of Albarino, each subtly different, but most worth trying. I’ve added notes of some of my favorites below. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!
2009 Martin Codax Albarino 12.5%
Flowery, pollen, peach, green plum, a little waxy, touch of seashell – vibrant acids on entry, ripe and round feeling with an almost lush quality to the the peach and apricot fruit, even a touch of apricot pit adding a nice bit of tension in the mouth, touch os mineral spice on the finish. Solid – 87pts
2009 Burgans Albarino 12.5%
Soft pear fruit, leafy fruit on the nose with notes of carambola, carnations, and a touch of candlewax – Bright and juicy in the mouth with succulent pear and peach fruit tones in a lean, crisp frame. Gains a nice sweet edge on the mid-palate and finishes with a touch of lime peel. 86pts
2009 Santiago Ruiz Albarino
Lime leaf, kiwi and guava on the slightly exotic, pungently aromatic nose. This is very bright with cutting acids that may be too bright for some people. There is a modest amount of flesh helping to buffer the acids but the light banana, lime and salty mineral flavors are acid driven and linger on the moderately long finish. This really would do well with some food, melon and prosciutto, something fatty and sweet would work well. This is good but not for everyone. 88pts
2009 Morgadio Legado del Conde Albarino 12.5%
Lemon pith, clay soil, chalk, apricot and green apple notes on the subtle nose. Zesty and fruity in the mouth with a blanket of soft fruit covering a vibrant vein of citrus, tangerine, and pear fruit that yield to sweet lime and mineral tones on the soft, long finish. This is not lacking in acid by any stretch but does have a rounded quality that makes it a bit softer than many Albarinos. The finish really exhibits fine purity to the fruit. 88pts
2009 Pazo San Mauro Albarino 12.5%
Lightly leesy on the nose with lovely, transparent citrus rind and pear tones accented with smoky, quartz notes and gentle green background notes. Nicely taut in the mouth with excellent clarity to the pear and mineral tones that drive through on the lean but flavorful finish. This exhibits lovely balance with all the fruit, mineral and structural components in harmony and real succulent length packed with salty mineral tones. This is a winner! 91pts
2009 Salneval Albarino 12.5%
Dusty minerals, very clean, a touch salty with soft notes of stemmy herbs, and milky green flowers. Quince, sweet lime zest, sweet pear - lovely entry rich and concentrated with striking fruit flavors right up front backed by subtle notes of herbs and flowers all backed up with a vibrant mineral vein. This is layered and complex with a nice edge of anise accenting the taut fruit that extends through the moderate finish which end with a zesty lime peel note and lovely river stone minerality. 89pts