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Spain Scores Again with Albarino

by Sara and Monty Preiser

We almost bristle when we read or hear about the so-called “ABC” Club, which in wine circles translates into “Anything But Chardonnay.” In its most basic form, this in-the-mind-only club encompasses consumers who are tired of drinking Chardonnay because they feel it is too prevalent -- not because there is a problem with the varietal. Our problem with the phrase and the claimed membership is that Chardonnays are made in so many styles and that in our opinion it would be difficult to try enough of them to ever become bored. Also, few grapes offer as much in the way of complexity, or accompany a wide range of foods any better.

With all of that said, however, there are times when we, as well as others, simply want to try a different white grape than Chardonnay. And there are certainly occasions when another varietal will better accompany a particular dish. Recently we have become somewhat enamored with a grape known as Albarino (Ahl-bah-reen-yo). This medium to full bodied varietal, which at its best is crisp, dry, and vibrant with a complex texture, is also highly aromatic (usually a nose of orange blossom) with excellent peach, melon, and apricot characteristics on the palate, and sometimes a hint of spritz as well.

Albarino is primarily grown in the section of Galicia in northwestern Spain called Rias Baixas (ree-ahss bii-shahs), meaning “lower rivers.” In this location the cool climate allows the wines to exhibit freshness, fruit, and good acidity, and is finally bringing recognition to Spain as a producer of fine white wines. Many tasters have compared Albarino to a combination of sauvignon blanc and a very dry Riesling, but we would add a Viognier component as well. It is no surprise that this acidic white wine is the equal of almost any other when it companions with fresh seafood and fish.

Almost unheard of a decade ago, Rias Baixas is a relatively new DO that, by investing in high tech equipment and concentrating its energies on one grape with the potential to make superb wines, invented itself into a region that is hot on a large scale. Albarino now commands the attention of knowledgeable consumers worldwide, and is commanding higher prices as its reputation grows. Wines labeled “Alberino” from this DO are 100% varietal, and the area also produces a wine known as “Rias Baixas,” which must include at least 70% Albarino grapes. This grape has not proven that it has any particular staying power once bottled, so consumption should probably be within a couple of years.

A few Albarino producers from Rias Baixas with good reputations include Martin Codax, Bordegas Morgadio, Lagar de Cervera, Marques de Vizhoja, and Santiago Ruiz.
[Sara, please put in the Albarinos you have in your book from Hermes tasting and maybe one at Alligator Grill -were you with me? Also from Miami the other night]

Is Albarino grown in America? A silly question, my friend. Yankee inventors and pioneers try everything, it seems, and the production of this varietal is no different.

As far as we can determine, all agree that the first Albarino in this country was planted by the Lundquist family (Bob and Louisa) of Qupe and Verdad in the Santa Ynez Valley. Today, the Albarino is solely bottled by Louisa at Verdad, a winery specializing in the growing of Spanish grapes. Selling for $17 , this 200 _ vintage is made from 100% Albarino organically farmed at the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in Los Olivos. The grapes were whole-cluster pressed after picking, and put into both a small stainless steel tank and neutral French Oak barrels. The wine in tank went through a long, cool, primary fermentation to preserve the delicate aromatics, so appealing in Albarino. The barrels went through both primary and malolactic fermentation to add roundness and complexity to the final wine. The wine sat on the less for four months, and then the lots were blended together, lightly fined and filtered, and bottled. Only 225 cases were produced.

This wine is true to its varietal, having deep floral perfume scents with hints of orange blossoms and pear. On the palate, intense mineral flavors mingle with green apple, peach and bitter almonds with a long, citrus-infused finish.

In 1997 Kathryn and Michael Havens planted some budwood from the famous Spanish producer Morgadio Estate in a windy, cool area of the Napa Carneros region. Three acres Three acres is now dedicated to Albarino, where each vine produces several very small clusters with small berries, tough skins, and dark seeds. In 1999, Havens Wine Cellars (in Napa just south of Yountville) made the first commercially offered Albarino in America. The 2004 version ($24) is now ready, and, like the best Albarinos from Rias Baixas, shows that aromatic/honey nose and crisp sharpness on the palate. The acidity is all natural, and apparently some years the wine has to be deacidified, but no malolactic fermentation is used.

The final American producer of Albarino that we can discover is Abacela, located in Roseburg, Oregon. Made by Earl Jones, professor of dermatology-turned-winemaker, the winery has sold out of its 2003 and has not bottled its 2004. Thus we were unable to taste this wine. The 2003 was described by the winery, however, as emitting perfume and key limes on the nose, while the palate is filled with crisp green apple, pineapple, and lemon meringue flavors that merge seamlessly with the bracing acidity to create a razor-clean finish. One other reviewer cites the hotter than normal climate for Albarino in the Jones’ selected vineyard, and says this produces one of the fullest noses she has experienced in a Spanish wine.

What we have here is an exciting grape, which, while perhaps not new to Spain, is quite unknown in this country as this is written. See us in two years, though. We predict it will be the rage.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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