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Albarino Explained

Albariňo, the “perfumed, elegant aristocrat”, as Jancis Robinson MW describes it, might well be the most modish of all wine grapes, which is both a good and a bad thing: good in that people recognise its finer qualities and there's more of it about; bad in that less scrupulous producers seek to churn out vast quantities of the stuff just to meet demand and without the respect the grape deserves.

The result, as we found for ourselves after tasting a couple of hundred of them on a recent buying trip to Spain, is a sea of beige. This is a travesty because albariňo is a king among grapes. It’s seen by many as an alternative to chardonnay, but that really only tells a partial story. Yes, albariňo does often replicate the peachy-melony character of chardonnay, but there are other elements – a distinct white flower aroma, plus a pronounced lemony acidity and saline minerality – which make it sui generis, a grape of noble character that deserves to be appreciated in its own right.

Albariňo is native to Galicia in north-west Spain – a wine region whose star is definitely in the ascendant right now, be it for white (albariňo, but also godello) or red (mostly mencía) wines. Mainly grown in Rías Baixas, it’s also important in Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra, while in Portugal it's found mainly in Vinho Verde, where it’s known as Alvarinho. Such has been the recognition of its potential in the past couple of decades that winemakers from California to Australia to New Zealand are now making great wines from the variety.

The best albariňos, though, come from Rías Baixas, a wet and lushly green denominacion de origen (DO) on the Atlantic coast of Spain whose microclimate and granite soils are hard to replicate in other parts of the world. More specifically, it's in the Salnés Valley that the purest examples (in other areas you will often see it blended with small proportions of godello, treixadura or loureiro) are found. Although albariňo is sometimes aged in oak, and can produce beautiful, rich wines when so aged, most winemakers in Salnés Valley would agree that the grape finds its best expression when aged in steel, with a little lees contact, which means it retains its taut, mineral, floral character.

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