Is Albariño the Next Great Summer Wine?
Plus: 5 Albariños to Try
Rías Baixas, in Galicia, is damp when there isn't rain, and when there is rain, it's just plain wet. Albariño vines thrive in this drizzly corner of northwestern Spain. And what's funny about that is, while Rías Baixas is misty and cool and all gray-green-Atlantic, Albariño itself is pretty much the spot-on embodiment of Galileo's famous saying that "wine is sunlight, held together by water." For my money, no other grape variety pulls that off so well.
Albariño is bright and zesty and crisp. When it doesn't taste like fresh grapefruit, it tastes like fresh pineapple, always with an underlying, evocative seashell minerality. That's why, in some utopian wine future, I'd like to see the New York City Parks Department install water fountains that dispense ice-cold Albariño. They could be turned on every year—in June, say. This will never, ever happen, but one can dream.
Or one can head to Rías Baixas. Even though Albariño fountains are not on every street corner here, the stuff is effectively omnipresent—it's the one part of Spain where the locals are more likely to have a glass of white in hand than red. I went there because I love Albariño (obviously), but also because I wanted to get more of a handle on its stylistic range. Complex, ambitious and pricey versions appear on wine lists in top restaurants like New York's Jean Georges and Seattle's Canlis; at the same time, appealing basic bottlings have become wine-shop mainstays. Albariños are even starting to turn up in supermarkets, where coming across anything other than the big three whites (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio) often feels like seeing a unicorn standing in your front yard.
Rías Baixas: Fantastic Albariño:
I drove up, one drizzly day, to Do Ferreiro, one of Rías Baixas's top wineries. By the roadside—Albariño vines are trained on granite posts to a level higher than my head—bunches of grapes were hanging down; this allows for ventilation and prevents rot, a problem here. But it's exactly this Atlantic climate, I was soon told by Gerardo Méndez, Do Ferreiro's somewhat taciturn owner, that allows this region to produce the wines it does. We were in the dining room of his 18th-century stone house, where his comments were being translated by his daughter, Encarna.
Our conversation was accompanied by a monumental oceanic lunch: raw oysters, the briny, local, wavy-shelled species; purple-edged cockles with paprika and olive oil; almejas a la marinera (clams in the fisherman's style); meaty hake served with langoustines, mushrooms and potatoes, garlicky and sustaining; tiny estuarial shrimp, sweet and rather debonair in their fine, red-veined shells. (About their distinctively firm flesh, Encarna said, "There are lots of currents where the river comes to the sea. It's like the shrimp go to the gym.") All of this seafood had come right from the docks that morning, and with it, we drank Do Ferreiro's wines: the minerally 2008 basic bottling and the 2006 vintage of the complex Cepas Vellas, made with grapes from vines that Gerardo claims are more than 200 years old.
Galician coastal cooking is simple in the best way, driven entirely by the freshness of the seafood that defines it. Almejas a la marinera, for instance, gets its name because that's how fisherman typically cooked their clams on the boat—steamed with a bit of Albariño, some olive oil and some diced onion (recipe, p. 78). The hake I had at Do Ferreiro was dead simple; I know, because I quizzed Encarna for the recipe. It was also delicious (recipe, p. 80). Appropriate to a cuisine defined by what the fishermen are hauling in that day in their nets, these are recipes in which it's easy to swap out one fish for another. No hake? No problem. Try halibut instead.
"With Albariño, when you eat, the wine disappears; when you drink, the food disappears," Gerardo said—a bit Yoda-like, but I got the gist. Then he explained that he, too, had to disappear; he had to attend a large tasting for buyers in Bilbao and needed to get there this afternoon. The prospect of driving for six hours after such a meal boggled me, but he seemed unfazed.
Albariño's success has been a boon for Galicia, a poor province. (The other historical reason that grapevines are trained so high here is so people can grow vegetables and raise chickens underneath them from September until June.) But what's happened in Rías Baixas as production has shot upward has been a long-term trend toward wines that are light, simple, affordable and released as soon as possible after harvest, usually in January or so. The question is whether these wines are crowding out Albariños that are more ambitious, those that are trying to realize the full potential of the grape.
"The problem with Albariño is that the message has been 'drink young, drink young, drink early, drink young' for the last 20 years," says Eulogio Botana, as we chat in the tiny cellar of his family winery, Zarate. "But the best thing with Albariño is to make wines that last."
Botana is succeeding in this ambition. His top wines, like the honeysuckle-and-beeswax-scented El Palomar, and El Balado, which tastes like what granite would taste like if it were made into wine (a good thing, oddly enough), come from tiny parcels of old vines and are two of the best Albariños I've ever had. They're part of a select group that includes Do Ferreiro's Cepas Vellas bottling and Pazo de Señoráns Selección Añada—the grands crus of Rías Baixas, in a sense. Marisol Bueno of Pazo de Señoráns echoes Botana's comment: "Our wines are not wines that die in the moment; they age and improve in the bottle." Admittedly, these wines are not cheap—around $40 and up—but they are extraordinary.
I find that I enjoy both the simple and the ambitious styles. And despite the worries of vintners like Botana, I'd say there are actually more age-worthy, complex Albariños around now than there used to be, though it is true that the more basic, less expensive wines sell far better.
I thought about all this at the end of my trip as I wandered through the stony streets of Pontevedra, the principal town of Rías Baixas, idly hungry, idly thirsty. It was a windy, cool Saturday, and the town market was in full swing. As I browsed, I was distracted from wine by the thought that one difference between American open-air markets and Spanish ones is that we don't tend to have pig heads hanging on hooks at ours. I stopped at a stand and ordered a plate of octopus—in Galicia, on weekends, everywhere you turn there's a pale pink, purple-suckered pulpo sitting, steamed, on a wooden plate, waiting to be scissored into creamy disks. A little olive oil and paprika and a toothpick to eat it with, and bingo, you're Galician. That and a glass of Albariño, which I also ordered. It was delicious. It was great. In fact, the only way it could have been better is if it had come from a water fountain.