Spotlight on Spain: The Albarinos of Rias Baixas
In Spain white wines aren’t taken all that seriously. Most Spaniards see them as basic quaffers fit for consumption with the country’s vast array of seafood and pork dishes. This thirsty traveller enjoyed the easily consumable and very inexpensive options on most Spanish menus. And, while I was pleased by the generally high average quality of the basic quaffing whites at most restaurants, I was disappointed in most of my attempts to find a profound white wine. My experience with the white Riojas of Lopez de Heredia notwithstanding (I would note parenthetically that white Riojas are nearly impossible to find at most wine stores and restaurants in Spain), in Spain the challenge of finding that show stopping moment with a white wine is frustrating.
Many producers in Spain seem to believe that it is barrel fermentation that makes good white wine great. But the flabby awkwardness present in most of the barrel fermented wines I tasted suggested to me either that the producers aren’t that skilled yet at the techniques required by oak or that the Spanish white varietites mostly don’t show well with oak fermentation. On reflection, and with a lot of exploration, I discovered that the most exciting white wines from Spain don’t gain their spark from a barrel, from emulating the French or from catering to American palates, but rather from attentive, and sometimes fanatical, focus on typicity.
Albarino, and to a lesser extent Verdejo, is the case in point manifestation of this observation. Albarino is considered by many to be the hallmark white wine of Spain. It is typically expressive and fruity up front, but dry and crisp in its finish. It is also typically expensive by Spanish standards due to the intensive manual harvesting the challenging slopes of Rias Baixas require – often showing up on wine lists at 14+ euros rather than 8-10. It is also typically untypical – being grown in the wettest and greenest part of Spain in the northwest. Albarino’s home is the contrast to the famous Don Quixote images of Andalucia and planes of Rioja that have made Spain so internationally renowned. The quiet Galicia instead offers lush landscapes dotted with simple and grandiose estuaries that remind one more of Scandanavia than the Iberian Peninsula.
How ironic it was, then, that the best Albarino I tasted in Spain was at a fantastic restaurant in Cordoba 5 minutes in the non-touristy direction away from the famous Great Mosque La Mesquita. In typical Andalucian fashion, the cafe was quiet until about 2pm when locals started showing up for a drink or two, which was apropos given how excellent the traditional cuisine it served up was, particularly the Salmorejo, a Gaspatcho-like soup that is yet much thicker, richer (and better) than Gaspatcho. The pairing – with the Argo de Bazan Granbazan Ambar Albarino – was a regional contrast, but a culinary marriage. The wine – an old-vine Albarino from producer Argo de Bazan – is biodynamic, made completely from hand picked grapes and free-run must, and fermented in steel. Extremely bright and fresh, the peachy and melony nose gave way to a very nuanced palate. While crispness is essential to any Albarino (something lost in nearly all of the barrel fermented versions), crispness alone does not make the best wine. The Granbazan Ambar adds layers of minerals and grass to the finish so as to add great complexity to what is, at its core, a wine about typicity. Excellent. ~25 euros at the Restaurant (14 retail).
The second of the two most exciting Albarinos I tasted while in Spain was the basic bottling from Mar de Rande. I had this Albarino on my last night in Spain after being stranded for a week longer than expected due to Volcanic ash. Despite that there are many wines in Spain that I would consider more ‘profound’ than this Albarino, the occasion was not about that sort of experience. Instead, this wine was consumed after a 10 hour bus ride back from Portugal to Madrid, soon after Huong and I stepped into what is very likely the best restaurant in the world with a giant plastic sculpture of a prawn outside its door: El Cucurucho.
This experience highlighted both the astonishing quality of Spanish seafood (I’m sorry to say that it puts Vancouver to shame) and the second aspect of Albarino’s typicity: its ability to take seafood to another level. A great Albarino is to seafood as a conductor is to an orchestra. It does not simply cleanse the palate for the next bite, but adds a sense of direction and coherence to the bevy of varying flavours on the table. In this particular case it also allowed the stunning freshness of what was probably the best seafood I’ve had in my life to articulate itself with pinpoint accuracy.
The Mar de Rande Albarino was more lemony than many Albarinos but maintained the fruity forwardness that is typical of the grape. The perception of sweetness created by the fruit is ideal for any seafood that is slightly sweet such as scallops or prawns, particularly when delicately seared with a very light sauce. The tart and very aromatic lemon (similar to the aromatics one gets from freshly zested lemon) of the wine cut the intensity of the sweetness just as it peaked, adding an essential counterpoint to the meal. I could not think of a better way to end my journey through Iberia. Very Good+ to Excellent. 17 Euros at the Restaurant.
Albarino is not about profundity. But, having experienced many mediocre Albarinos, it is also not a grape that is just about simplicity and quaffability. While many may argue that food makes Albarino sing, the truly great versions are also wonderful aparatifs and great wines in their own right. What makes them great is neither profundity nor simplicity, but rather delicacy, nuance, and an unmistakable regional typicity that the French like to call terroir.