At home with Albariño
It’s become one of the world’s trendiest white varieties, but nowhere makes it quite like Rías Baixas. Even in this corner of Green Spain, winemakers are still discovering new aspects to Albariño’s personality
Albariño is a grape that excites winemakers in many parts of the world these days. But the benchmark is invariably Rías Baixas, where the variety has found its natural home.
Indeed Albariño is as synonymous with this beautiful and windswept part of what’s often called Green Spain, just north of the Minho river that creates a natural border with Portugal, as Pinot Noir is with Burgundy or Riesling is with the Mosel.
Talking of Riesling: “Pilgrims have followed several caminos, or routes, to Santiago de Compostella from other parts of Europe and some of them have brought other things apart from their faith,” says wine writer Simon Woods, who hosted a recent Wine Merchant online tasting of Rías Baixas wines.
“A lot of these routes come from west and central Europe and further north, straight through these major wine regions. You get people who are starting out in Germany and around Burgundy.
“One theory I’ve heard for the name of Albariño is ‘the white from the Rhine’ and I know sometimes Albariño can have Riesling-like connotations. But there’s no DNA link – it’s just one of those nice stories.”
Albariño has made its mark in Rías Baixas for a number of reasons. Its thick skin helps protect it from mildew in the humid climate, though vignerons tend to give it a helping hand by training it high on pergolas. The variety’s aromatic qualities, and robust acidity, make it an ideal partner for the region’s world-class seafood, much of it sourced from spectacular Atlantic estuaries.
There are five sub-regions: Ribeira do Ulla in the north, just east of Padron (of pepper fame); the granitic heartland of Val do Salnés, where 70% of the region’s patchwork of vineyards are located; Soutomaior, the smallest of the five; the hot, dry and mountainous Condado do Tea; and finally O Rosal, on the banks of the Minho, where a seam of schist makes a guest appearance.
The Rías Baixas DO only came into effect in 1988, and there’s a real sense that the region’s wines are still evolving.
Producers are discovering new techniques in the vineyard and the winery that mean that any assumptions about their wines, formed even as recently as five years ago, could easily be out of date.
Producers like Terras Gauda in the O Rosal sub-region have even moved away from pergolas to more conventional trellising.
“I can say I get better ripening than with a pergola,” says winemaker Emilio Rodríguez Cannas. “With this system we have to spray less than with a pergola system.”
On the flip side, yields with the trellising system are relatively low at 7,000kg per hectare. “Obviously it’s less productive,” he accepts.
On the winemaking front, Woods believes that Rías Baixas has become rather more sophisticated.
“The first wines I remember were trying to be a little bit too Viognier,” he recalls. “It seems to me there’s more of an accent on structure now, and finer fruit flavours, and not being afraid of that little bitter, pithy edge.”
Emilio Rodríguez Cannas does not think there is one particular winemaking trend. “It depends on the sub regions; it depends on the wineries; but there is not one specific style at this moment,” he says.
Cristina Mantilla, the oenologist at Palacio de Fefiñanes in Salnés, says that a key decision for winemakers is whether or not to use malolactic fermentation to soften Albariño’s occasionally searing acidity.
“We began to work more with the lees, and with oak and without oak,” she says. “Maybe 20 years ago French oak was hiding the fruit and the flowers of the white grapes. It was a mistake because there were a lot of good wines that had a lot of wood and the variety disappeared.
“Wineries started to work with the lees and it’s a very good way to promote ageing in the bottle as well as freshness.”
Emilio Rodríguez Cannas adds: “Many people are stirring the wine with the lees now. It was something that was actually done many years ago.
“Most people are thinking about making wines to age – and not necessarily due to the contact with the oak. Without oak, there are many people who wait two years or three years after bottling and it’s a good way to improve the wines.
“It’s one style, though the main style is for young wines – the wine of the year. But there are many different styles.”
Paco & Lola 2018 (Val do Salnés)
Extended time on lees adds a richness to counter the fresh acidity of this wine, available in the UK though Matthew Clark. The modern packaging and uncomplicated style would make it a natural alternative choice for Sauvignon Blanc fans, suggests Kelli Coxhead of The Wine Shop in Winscombe, Somerset.
Linar de Vides 2018 (Condado de Tea)
“For an Albariño with this level of ambition, its goal is to be fresh and juicy,” says Simon Woods. “It has what I’d call a bitter, pithy edge. It reminds me ever so slightly of unripe bananas and there’s that little bit of furriness from tannin.”
Hannah Wilkins of Vineyards, Sherborne, describes the wine, shipped by Peter Watts Wines, as “absolutely delicious”. Sadie Wilkins adds: “I like the minerality. You have subtle stone fruit and a touch of floral and it’s really nice and clean.”
Terras Gauda 2019 (O Rosal)
Here Albariño is joined by a mix of other varieties, notably Caiño Blanco, which makes up 22% of the blend.
“It’s a grape that almost disappeared 35 years ago,” says Emilio Rodríguez Cannas. “We are replanting Caiño and in a short time we’ll have more than 22%.
“We put our wine in contact with the lees for no more than two months, and Caiño gives roundness, structure and body to the wines. It’s the best variety to show the O Rosal terroir, better than Albariño.
“This is a wine without sharp acidity and that’s thanks to Caiño. The Caiño gives character to the wine; it’s less aromatic than Albariño, but it’s a variety with great potential to age.”
Charlotte Dean of Wined Up Here in south west London says this wine, supplied by Les Caves de Pyrene, is among her best-sellers.
“It’s something I recommend with fish and people always come back for more, saying how amazing it is because it really shows that complexity and that development in the mouth, which a lot of wines under £20 just don’t do,” she says.
“The floral character just makes you want to drink it … it’s developed and developed since it’s been open. I think it’s an amazing wine.
“It’s very Chablis-eque as well. That minerality is there; that salinity is there as well.”
Fefinanes 111 2019 (Val do Salnés)
The wine was allowed to age on its lees for extra structure – five to six months is normal, according to Cristina Mantilla.
“Then it stays in tank for about one more year until we bottle and then another six months in bottle in the winery. It’s a young wine but with maturity, stone fruits on the nose, more volume, high acidity … but soft, because of the ageing on the lees.”
The wine, imported into the UK by Winetraders, has the best packaging of the four wines, according to Hannah Wilkins. “I want to bathe in Terras Gauda while drinking Fefinanes,” she says.
Justin Knock MW
Philglas & Swiggot, London
“The wines have an immediacy to them; they’re easy to recommend – people
“A couple of the wines do have complexity, but I don’t think people are necessarily buying these wines because they’re hugely complex. You can open them at a moment’s notice, and they are ready to go. They’re delicious.
“You don’t have to worry about people saying, ‘I don’t like high acidity in Riesling’ or ‘I don’t like the richness of Chardonnay’: they’ve got a really wide appeal but at a pretty good quality level and with a premium image. They’re super-easy wines to sell in that sense.
“There is a different range of styles here, and there is a lemon freshness to the younger wines in particular.”
Oxford Wine Company
“I thought the texture was just so beautiful in both Terras Gauda and Fefinanes, and also the concentration of flavours. I thought they were stunners – gorgeous.
“We had a different bottling from Fefinanes on our shelves for a long time and it was a huge staff favourite. It’s an amazing wine.
“We list maybe six Albariños and Alvarinos and I think I’m going to be recommending some more at the premium end. They’re not things that people tend to pick up by themselves.”
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