The Albariño Alternative

With the possible exception of cavas, the Spanish sparkling wines, when most Americans think of Spanish wines, they see red. But Spanish white wines have made great progress in past 15 years or so.  As Julio Baguer, former director of Wines from Spain, a government agency that promotes Spanish wines, told me when I was writing about Spanish wines in 2000, “Six years ago you couldn’t get arrested with a Spanish white wine. Today we sell more Albariños to the United States than any place in the world.” The same holds true today. In fact, we drink more Albariño here than they do in Spain!

Slightly spritzy with peachy aromas, Albariño loses much of its bright acidity when it ages, so it should be consumed within two years of the vintage. Some winemakers are experimenting by blending Albariño with other grapes such as LoureiroGodelloCaiñoArinto or Treixadura, a practice that was once much more common. (For any wine to be called Albarino, it must be 100 percent of that grape.) Others are barrel aging Albariño or putting it through malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation which turns crisp malic acid into creamier lactic acid.

For me Albariño should stand on its own without manipulation, much like Riesling, a varietal that Albariño has been compared to; some mistakenly believe that Albariño is a clone of Riesling.

Known as Alvarinho in nearby Portugal, Albariño reaches its apex in the Rias Baixas (REE-ahs bi-SHAHS) region of Galicia, the cool, damp region on the Atlantic in northwest Spain. So it’s not surprising Albariño goes superbly with shellfish. One of my favorite food memories is sitting on a boat next to oyster beds off the shores of Galicia, sipping Albariño with just harvested oysters. Maybe it was the place and time, but I’ve never had better wine with oysters.

Some months ago, my wife and I participated in a Philadelphia Tapas Crawl in which we sampled five Albariños from Rias Baixas with food from three of Jose Garces’ restaurants: Amada (a Spanish tapas place with the best roast suckling pig this side of Castilla y Leon); Chifa (a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant that has better fusion cuisine than any restaurant I can think of) and Tinto (a salute to Basque cooking).

The tasting confirmed several things. First, that Albariño is great with seafood, especially lighter seafood, such as the Asian-style seviche at Chifa or the octopus and potatoes at Amada. Second, Albariño is a good choice with appetizers in general, such as the fried peppers with a kind of romesco sauce and a tuna spread at Amada. Albariño is less successful with heavier foods, such as the albondigas or meatballs in a creamy rich sauce, earthy mushrooms that begged for a red, like Pinot Noir, and with cheese, or at least the Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheese we had at Tinto.
Don’t think of Albariño just for Spanish food though. Because of its acidity and lower in alcohol (generally around 12.5%) Albariño is a good choice for spicy cuisines such as Indian and Thai. Albarino is also easy on the pocketbook. All five wines retail for $16 to $20. Finally, my favorite of the five Albarñios we sampled was thealbariño 2007 ($16). It had the usual crispness but was more floral and expressive than the others. It was also richer but still well balanced.

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