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Souvenir Wines

Some travelers come home with snapshots, others return with an unquenchable desire for a newly discovered wine.

We had driven almost two hours from our small hotel in the French Pyrenees, all the way across the mountains to the Spanish border, through the resort town of Roses and along a winding, bumpy one-lane mountain road. The only visible sign of civilization came in the form of bulldog heads stenciled on some roadside rocks.

We were on our way to El Bulli (The Bulldog), a much praised restaurant that food critics everywhere have described as "the most interesting in the world today." Once seated, I began studying the wine list and realized I'd made a big mistake.

I'd recently fallen in love with Spanish red wines and had prepared for our trip by reading up on and tasting as many of them as I could find. Unfortunately, it hadn't occurred to me to do the same with Spanish whites. And as it turned out, El Bulli, located near the Mediterranean Sea, specializes in seafood, notably shellfish.

Now, I'm not a white-wine-with-fish, red-wine-with-meat kind of guy. In fact, I like red wine with almost everything. However, I do think the acidity of white wine generally makes it a better companion to shellfish than almost any red. I confessed my ignorance and my preference to the sommelier and threw myself on his mercy. He recommended Albariño, a wine made in the Rías Baixas region of Galicia, the windy, rainy, westernmost part of Spain. In particular, he said, we should order the Albariño from a producer named Granbazán.

The choice was superb, perfect with each of our four dishes, which included shrimp, clams, mussels and cuttlefish. The wine wasn't quite as flinty as a Muscadet, nor was it as rich as my favorite Chablis; instead, it had just the right amount of fruit, acidity and body to both complement and emphasize the flavors of the shellfish. And it was very reasonably priced--a mere $28--a fact that's especially noteworthy in a Michelin three-star restaurant.

We tried several other Albariños during our time in Spain but didn't find any we liked as well as the Granbazán. So on our last day in Barcelona, I went to a wine store near our hotel and bought two bottles, one for my wife and me, and one for the family we were traveling with. (I would have bought a case, but I didn't want to carry it and figured I'd have no problem finding the wine at home. That was my second mistake.)

I decided to track down the Granbazán a few days after our return to Los Angeles. I began calling the wine merchants I regularly deal with. None had ever heard of my wine. I phoned a few stores in San Francisco and even three or four shops in New York. The answer was the same. So I expanded my search to include a few local restaurateurs, two prominent sommeliers, several wine distributors, an importer and even two wine writers. Still no luck.

While I was on the hunt, I was also reading up on Albariño. The forerunner of the Albariño vine, I learned, was most likely brought to Spain in the Middle Ages by German pilgrims visiting the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. The wine ultimately became one of the most highly regarded in Europe. But it began to fall from favor in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks in part to a decline in the local fishing industry and a subsequent economic downturn. It didn't help that the Albariño grape is tough to grow, with a skin so thick that relatively little juice can be extracted, resulting in low yields and low profits--a risky combination in a weak economy.

By the mid-1980s, only five Albariño makers survived, and production had shriveled to 500 acres. But with an improved economy, full-scale production resumed in the 1990s. Today Albariño is grown on more than 6,000 acres and made by more than 50 different wineries, about 20 of which ship to the United States. Just not Granbazán. Or so it seemed.

In the meantime, I wasn't just reading about Albariño, I was also tasting as much of it as I could find. I bought Albariños from the producers Morgadío and Lusco, from Martin Codax, Santiago Ruiz, Fillaboa and Burgans. I drank the wines both with and without food, together and separately. My verdicts remained fairly consistent: They were all fine, but none was as good as the Granbazán (although I thought the Morgadío was definitely the best of the alternatives).

It wasn't until I was several weeks into this seemingly fruitless search that I had a small epiphany of sorts. I decided to start all over, at the most obvious place of all. I opened the telephone book and looked up "Spain." I started with the Spanish Commercial Office. They connected me to a man who, they said, "helps us with all the Spanish wines that come into this country." In turn, that man gave me the number of a small importer of Spanish wines, named José Bargo, based in Edgewater, New Jersey. Bargo? Bingo!

A week later, Granbazán in hand, I walked into my favorite local fish restaurant and ordered a dozen oysters. It was like visiting an old friend. Yes, I was in downtown Los Angeles, with a view decidedly not that of the Mediterranean. But with the Granbazán in my glass, it was almost as if I were in Spain once more.

David Shaw, the media critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about his love of grappa in the December 1999 issue.

Published May 2000
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