If I asked you what the world’s most popular white variety is, how would you respond? You guessed, it, Chardonnay – unless, of course you live in Spain, where Albariño ranks as the signature white that captures everyone’s heart.
Albar-what? Albariño! Pronounced “Al-ba-ree-nyo”, meaning “the white from Rhine”, is as popular to Spain as Chardonnay is to North America. Grown in the D.O. appellation Rías Baixas (ree-ahs-buy-shuss), Albariño is considered a benchmark producing captivating wines with rich, tart, distinctive aromas and flavors.
What I love about Albariño is its innate ability to mimic so many varietals, yet it distinctively stands out as a wine with unrivaled character and finesse. Emulating its stature would call for a dash of grassiness from Sauvignon blanc, a hint of almond flavors found in Pinot blanc, a handful of mineral flavors from Riesling, a pinch of apple and peach from Chardonnay – then envelop all this goodness with the sweet smells of apricots and orange blossoms found in Viognier.
Albariño really is a unique grape!
I recently tasted a number of delicious Albariño’s from the Rias Baixas region. My favorite among the flight was the 2007 Adegas Morgadio Albarino Rias Baixas, which has wonderfully aromatic aromas with scents of apple and citrus. The style piled up zesty flavors of lime, green tea and melon finishing with a long, rich, clean, zesty punch. Another great find is the 2007 Viña Nora Albarino Rias Baixas, which has nice acidity and flavors bursting with complex honeydew and orchard fruit. Retailing at $14 a bottle, it’s a great wine for the price.
Now Spain isn’t the only area where Albariño is grown. Portugal also produces it under a different name, a.k.a. “Alvarinho” which typically makes a lighter, sometimes fizzy style wine compared to its rival Rías Baixas region.
As for new world territories, Albariño is beginning to spread its wings. According to the Trade Commission of Spain, the first plantings in the United States were in Virginia. In Califronia, Qupé Wine Cellars (1) planted the first block of Albariño in the Santa Ynez Valley in the mid-1990s. Since then, a number of other California appellations started planting Albariño, including Edna Valley, Carneros, Clarksburg, the Central Coast, Monterey, Napa, Orange County, Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills, and even the Lodi region. Did you say Lodi? Unbelievable at it may seem the Albariño grape is growing in a region where Zinfandel is the reigning king. As the growing number of consumer interest in Albariño increased, other states such as Oregon and Maryland followed suit.
Heading to our Southern Hemisphere, Australia began importing the grape about six years ago, which now supports roughly two dozen producers. Some of the more well-known wineries include Chrismont and Sam Miranda from King Valley, First Drop and Tscharke from Barossa Valley, Gemtree Vineyards from McLaren Vale, and Irvine from Eden Valley.
Like the U.S., there is enormous potential for Albariño growth in Australia, which has yet to be explored, and with wine consumers willing to try new grape varieties, there is no doubt that production yields will increase as consumers recognize the uniqueness of what this grape has to offer.
Reinforcing this direction is the announcement of Kirrihill Wines prospecting and evaluating the ability to produce this varietal in Australia’s Adelaide Hills.
“We are working with our growers, Paul and Michele Edwards, to plant Albariño in the Adelaide Hills. They are already growing high quality Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc in their Mount Torrens vineyard and we believe Albariño would be a natural fit,” says Matthew McCulloch of Kirrihill wines.
In Spain, Albariño is grown almost exclusively in the cool and wet environs of the Rías Baixas region in Galicia, a Mediterranean climate where Albariño grows in its granite and chalk soils positioned steps away from the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the Adelaide Hills in Australia is not as wet as the Rías Baixas region, there is less fungal disease pressure, which is a definite advantage for Australian grape growers. In similarity, both Rías Baixas and the Adelaide Hills regions have Mediterranean climates and soil compositions that support the growth of Albariño. “Both regions enjoy a maritime climate with the nearby oceans, Southern and Atlantic, exerting a significant influence. Soils in the Adelaide Hills are varied with weathered schists, skeletal quartzites, sandstones and podsols of varying fertility whilst granite-based soils make up the Rías Baixas, so we are identifying areas within the vineyard where quartzites predominate which is the nearest to a granite-based soil we have,” says McCulloch.
Now I’ve been dying to try one of these Aussie Albariños but I haven’t had much luck tracking one down in Oregon. Most of what I’ve heard, the Australian style is quite different from the Spanish rendition. They still have the floral and fragrant aspects, but they tend to play down the minerality aspect and lean towards more complexity and higher alcohol concentrations with delicious flavors of honeysuckle, lemon, and fresh cut pear. Hopefully I’ll track down one of these fine wines and report back on some tasting notes and locations on where you can find them in the U.S.
So what are some of your favorite Albariños you’ve tried recently?
(1) The first California Albariño bottling actually came from Havens Wine Cellars in 1999.