Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Monday, November 8, 2010

All About Albariño

It’s not as if a colorful, ingredient-packed risotto topped with a boneless lamb shank ragout wasn’t enough to delight my palate, it was also preceded by a scrumptious salad, and followed with a decadent, zabaione-like, fruit topped dessert. The Fields, Mary and Tom, put on a gourmet talent show that also involved a beautifully designed nine-wines-and-cheeses tasting that preceded the dinner. Wow! Within that tasting of reds and white wines, was one of my favorite whites—Albariño.

Albariño, Spain’s finest white wine comes from one of the most unlikely vineyard settings in the country, if not the world. Of the six climactic regions that define Spain’s wine production, Albariño is produced in the coolest and moistest of them all. Within the north-northwest region, known as “Green Spain,” perched atop Portugal, lays the Atlantic-facing province of Galicia. In Galicia’s southwest corner near the Portugal border is the appellation of Rias Baixas (REE-ahs BUY-shuss). It is there, in an Ireland-like landscape and weather belt, where the numerous jagged, lands-end inlets meet the ocean, that Albariño is produced. Other wines are made there, but Albariño is the signature and defining grape, as it accounts for more than 90% of the appellation’s production.

Albariño’s best vineyards, those in the The Salnés Valley sub-zone, lie close to the lower (baixas) fjord-like estuaries (rias), where the annual mean temperature tops out at 55 degrees. And as you might guess, it requires a singular grape like the Albariño, with its thick, sturdy skin, to withstand the microclimate’s twin threats of mildew and rot. Also, totally unlike customary ground-level cultivation and harvesting, the Albariño is cultivated high above the ground on pergolas, a trellised, canopy-like system. This keeps the grapes dry and helps resist fungus and mildew. Harvest time photos that test one’s expectations and perception, depict vineyard workers standing on wooden boxes reaching up to cut grape clusters from hanging vines.

Albariño’s personality traits offer a welcomed alternative to the usual white wine suspects. It’s medium bodied with a rich, aromatic stone fruit (peaches, apricots) quality and a fresh, crisp acidity. After crushing, it’s chilled and cold soaked to extract optimal aromatics and then fermented in stainless steel. It’s typically sees no oak, which is one reason I’m partial to it. However, since locals like their wines oaked, some producers are now experimenting with it. Aromatically, it can be quite elusive, for it often recalls a Viognier, at other times a German Riesling, and still at other times an Alsatian Pinot Gris. To be sure, that is part of its charm.

When enjoyed with food, which is what it’s all about, it goes well with salads, seafood (consider its birthplace), and olive oil-laced pastas, as well as some Asian dishes. Thanksgiving would be a good time to sample it. Retail prices, heading upwards now, range from $12 to $25. Some producers that I have enjoyed are Burgans, Valminor, Morgadio, Martin Codax, Condes de Albarei, Vionta, and my current favorite, Fefiñanes. As a final note, I should add that as recently as the late 1980’s Albariño was an unknown, poorly made, provincial quaff. Thanks to visionary Spanish winegrowers, who foresaw Albariño’s potential, wine enthusiasts now have another world-class wine atop their dinner tables.

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