by Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 1 July 2015
The most popular grape that I have ever introduced to people at my tastings is Albarino. It seems to appeal to everyone who likes a crisp vibrant white wine – and so it is hardly surprising to see it becoming the new hot grape – planted from Spain, California to New Zealand – now widely available in wine bars, restaurants and supermarkets in the UK.
Imagine the peachy aromas of Viognier, with the zippy freshness of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio and the rich palate texture of an unoaked Chardonnay. Albarino – or Alvarinho as it is known in Portugal – has great natural acidity making it taste so fresh often with a minerally edge. It does not have the same green grassy flavours of a Sauvignon Blanc, but the Albarino grape is more about flavours of lemongrass, orange peel floral exotic touch.
This thick-skinned grape, with its characteristically small bunches, gives it its characteristically soft rich textural mouthfeel, so it is not all about sharpness and stringent acidity as it has an extra weight in the mid-palate. It is this that makes Albarino great for serving with richer textured seafood dishes like monkfish or scallops.
Albarino is believed to be one of the oldest varieties in north-west Spain. Mentioned in 1843 in Galicia, there are apparently 300 year old vines growing here, so it could be wild to this corner of Spain but according to grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz, “There is no conclusive proof as to whether Alvarinho began life in north east Portugal or over the border in Galicia in Spain”.
Today it is now extensively cultivated to over 5,000 hectares in remote beautiful ‘green Spain’ in the region of Rias Baixas DO in the far north east. This is Albarino’s real stamping ground – with very strict DO regulations introduced in 1980 – which has meant that the quality of Albarinos from Rias Baixas DO that we see in the UK are very good.
Here in Galicia, an area where pilgrims have been walking to for centuries – as their final destination along the Camino de Santiago is of course Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. No doubt pilgrims have refreshed themselves with many a glass or two of Albarino after their long walks. Often vineyards here are on beautiful inlets close to the sea with vines planted at 100-200 metres above sealevel, so that you almost taste a touch of saltiness in the wine – again making it an ideal match for seafood.
Just over the border in Portugal, where Alvarinho is grown in Vinho Verde country – a verdant green land near the coast north of Oporto – there is less than half the amount of Albarino planted as there is in Spain. Here you can buy single varietal (one grape) Alvarinho in Vinho Verde (see below in our tasting), but you will also find it blended with another little known Portuguese grape called Loureiro here.
Now the Albarino grape is popping up everywhere from Uruguay in South America, Marlborough in New Zealand, Washington State, Oregon and California. Examples of these are few and far between still in the UK (try Coopers Creek from New Zealand, Bonny Doon from Monterey in California or Tangent from Edna Valley in Calfornia) – so our own Albarino tasting focused on the best from its homeland in Spain and Portugal.
Vinho Verde, Portugal: SOALHEIRO ALVARINHO VINHO VERDE 2013 (£14.95 The Wine Society)
The owner of Quinta de Soalheiro, Jose Antonio Cerdeira, was the first to plant Alvarinho vines back in 1974 well before the Albarino craze began in this corner of Europe. Planted on granite soils in Moncao d Melgaco, almost within sight of the Spanish border, this is certainly Portugal’s most serious Alvarinho example. Loved the sleekness, limey crisp flavours and succulent fruits on the palate. Very stylish packaing too. The retailer suggests serving with dim sum or herring. Alcohol 12.5%
Rias Baixas, Spain: TASTE THE DIFFERENCE ALBARINO 2013 (£8 Sainsburys)
Just as it says on the label: crisp, refreshing with elegant minerality. The best of the UK supermarket own label Albarinos that we tried in this tasting. Made by winemaker Enrique Pineiro at family winery, Adega Gran Vinum. Alcohol 12.5% STAR VALUE BUY
Rias Baixas, Spain: ‘MOST WANTED’ ALBARINO 2013 (£7.99 Co-op)
A bit disappointing compared to the Sainsbury’s Albarino, quite light crisp dry and inoffensive but does not really show the great characteristics of the grape at the same price as Sainsbury’s. Alcohol 12.5%
Rias Baixas, Spain: ALBARINO 2013 Martin Codax (£12.99 Aitken Wines, Dundee;
Abbey Fine Wines; Melrose; The Cave Glasgow; Exel Wines, Perth; Cornelius Wine, Valvona & Crolla, Fine Wine Co, Fountainhall Wines, Henderson Wines, Edin; Luvians, Cupar/St Andrews; Lockett Bros, N Berwick)
Made by the dynamic Martin Codax co-operative – set up in the mid 1980’s by 50 families with a sizeable 420 hectares of vineyards. Martin Codax is not the winemaker, but the name of a mediaeval poet and ministrel. A very classic zesty crisp minerally style of Albarino, although it lacks the fleshy succulence and textural mouthfeel that some other Albarinos had in our tasting. Alcohol 12.5%
Rias Baixas, Spain: EXHIBITION ALBARINO 2013 Pazo de Senorans (£12.95 The Wine Society)
This is a peach of a wine made at the beautiful 16th century Pazo de Senorans in Vilanovina. The estate was bought just as the Albarino phase was taking off, so the new owner decided to focus on wine rather than fruit trees. With the help of long established winemaker Ana Quintela, this is a real classic Albarino with creamy mouthfeel and a hint of salt on the finish. A joint favourite in the tasting with the Pazo de Barrantes wine below. Alcohol 12.5% STAR BUY
Rias Baixas, Spain: PAZO DE BARRANTES ALBARINO 2013 (£15 Raeburn Wines, Villeneuve Wines)
Rich tropical fruits, lush rich texture and well balanced acid and minerality. From one of my favourite Galician wineries, owned by the mighty Rioja family Marques de Murrieta. It is great to see a big Spanish wine family investing in remote Galicia. Note the pilgrim slippers on the label which reminds us that Galicia is at the end of the pilgrimage walk, Santiago de Compostela. Alcohol 13% STAR BUY
Rias Baixas, Spain: CAIXAS ALBARINO 2013 Martín Códax (£7.49 Majestic Wine)
Another wine from the Martin Codax co-operative, but note the different price. This is just basically scaled down lighter Albarino with tropical fruit notes, citric, a bit too tart on the finish – disappointing. Would rather pay more for the premium Albarino from Martin Codax. Alcohol 12.5%
Rias Baixas, Spain: DEUSA NAI ALBARINO 2013 Marqués de Cáceres (£9.97 reduced from £13.49 until 3 August Majestic Wine)
Made by another well-known Rioja producer now taking advantage of the Albarino grape craze in north west Spain. The name Deusa Nai is the name of the mother goddess. Floral aromas with a very limey palate, not as enticing as other Albarinos in our tasting with a short finish – but an acceptable example at its knockdown summer price. Note the slightly lower alcohol level here which makes it a touch lighter as a summer quaffer. Alcohol 12%
Rias Baixas, Spain: PAZO DE VILLAREI ALBARINO 2014 (£8.95 The Wine Society)
The Celtic heritage of this estate in the Salnes valley nr Cambados speaks loud and clear on the label with its distinctive smart logo. This is more of a minerally, lighter Albarino version, but very acceptable at this price. The retailer suggests serving this with smoked mackerel, which might work quite well. Alcohol 12.5% STAR VALUE BUY
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