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Albarino on a journey of self-discovery
AMONG the first wave of new grapes that came to define today's era of diversity in wine was albarino, from the Rías Baixas region of Galicia in northwestern Spain.
The wines were a novelty when they began showing up in Spanish restaurants in the United States in the early 1990s. The occasional mentions of them through the decade required pronunciation guides: al-bar-EEN-yo and REE-yas BUY-shas.
In 1995, Frank J Prial, then The New York Times' wine columnist, cautioned, "albarino is not an easy wine to find in this country". In short time, though, it caught on, and helped pave the way for other then-unknown white wines to be welcomed onto the country's wine list, like grüner veltliner of Austria, fiano d'Avellino of Campania and assyrtiko of Santorini, as well as other Spanish whites like godello.
While albarino has proved consistently popular since then, it has rarely received much respect from those looking beyond crisp, cheerful (and preferably inexpensive) whites.
Except for one or two small labels, many of the wines seemed generally to be inoffensive, made by producers who had taken the temperature of what the audience wanted and given them no more than that.
As with New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which arrived slightly earlier than albarino and became even more popular, the producers could aim low because it was a cash cow, successful in the marketplace but rarely interesting to those who paid careful attention to what they were drinking.
Recently, however, several excellent bottles made me wonder whether it was time to take another look at albarinos.
The wine panel recently tasted 20 bottles of albarino from Rías Baixas. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests, Caitlin O'Brien, wine manager at Toro NYC in Chelsea, and Gabriela Davogustto, wine director at Clay in Harlem.
The wines largely came from the 2017 vintage, with a few from 2016 and one each from 2018 and 2015. Some, as expected, were dry, aromatic and pleasant, while others were grasping for something deeper. These wines seemed to be more textured, with great minerality and intensity. They demanded exploration.
"They are discovering who they are," Gabriela said. "After entering the international market, they are now trying to go back and discover an identity: 'How do the wines reflect who we are?'" It's a fascinating question, one that could be asked of many wines from historic grape-growing regions which arrived on the international market in the last 20 years or so.
Some of these wines have travelled a parallel journey in which commercial success is followed by introspection. Commerce is crucial to sustaining a business. But wine also is an expression of culture, especially in places that have a long association with a particular grape.
These questions of identity reflect a divide in wine in which some producers measure themselves solely by what's in the glass and whether a sufficient number of customers want it. The others are likewise concerned with the aromas and flavours of the wine, but also with what the wine says about the culture and place that produced it.
That's not to say that these producers are reaching back to an earlier era and presenting a preglobalisation interpretation of albarino. But perhaps, rather than producing the clean, correct, possibly soulless wines possible today because of modern tools, they are returning to techniques that would not be alien to preindustrial winemakers, in an effort to make the best possible 21st-century wines.
Our favourites showed strong mineral flavours, tangy citrus notes and lively acidity. These are wines that demand to be served with fresh seafood, the sort that would go with a zippy citrus spritz. I came to think of some of them as the citrus addition to a dish like ceviche.
Some bottles had the sort of richer textures that were evidence of barrel ageing and the presence of lees, the sediment of yeast after fermentation is completed. If properly managed, the lees can add an antioxidant component to the wines, as well as a creamy texture.
Our favourite was the 2015 Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas, which was taut, complex and deep. Cepas Vellas is a Galician term for old vines. This has been a longtime favourite of mine, and in many ways has been a standard-bearer for how good albarino can be.
Even though it was the oldest wine in the tasting, it's a bottle that typically requires ageing before it begins to open up. It has years to go.
The rare Cepas Vellas costs around US$50; its less expensive Do Ferreiro sibling, about half the price, is still very good, though it was not in our tasting.
Even at US$50, the Cepas Vellas was not our most expensive bottle. That was the US$80 2017 Sketch from Raúl Pérez, a superstar winemaker in Spain who has pushed the quality limits in any number of regions.
Sketch was one of the richer albarinos in the tasting, with aromas and flavours of Meyer lemons and flowers. It skirted awfully close to over-extravagance, but kept its balance nicely. Still, for US$80 you are buying scarcity, the Pérez name and, no doubt, his meticulous methods.
Numbers 2 through 4 on our list were more typically priced, around US$25 a bottle. You could probably find more than a few albarinos under US$15, but I would be surprised if any were as good.
No 2 was the 2017 Envidiacochina Tête de Cuvée from Adega Familiar Eladio Piñeiro, made from biodynamically grown grapes. It was substantial yet energetic, with citrus, floral and mineral flavours. The 2017 Aquitania from Bodegas Aquitania, textured and resonant, with citrus and savoury saline flavors, ranked at No 3.
As good as our favourite wines were, it has to be said that many less interesting bottles are out there, the kind that, as Caitlin said, have made albarino "a bit of a brand name" in the wine-by-the-glass world.
Yet the good ones suggest albarino from Rías Baixas has a tremendous amount of untapped potential. As more producers start to focus on quality, and aim to express the particular characteristics of the local terroirs, I would expect more excellent wines to start to appear pretty soon. NYTIMES