Albariño: A wine of the sea

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | march 2017

Most tourist areas of the world are overrun by visitors during the high season and Spain is no exception. Parisians and other Northern Europeans love to travel to the famous southern beaches of the Costa del Sol to escape the gritty cities during the summer months. Like other tourist spots, the local Spaniards escape to more quiet locations until the summer buzz is over. Some Spaniards disappear to Galicia, an isolated verdant (green as the coasts of Ireland) autonomous region tucked between Portugal's northern border and the Atlantic Ocean.

This isolated region of Spain has more in common with the coast of Ireland than the dusty plains of Spain because of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Cantabrian Sea to the north and the numerous bays and inlets called rias. The ancient mountains and inland rivers have carved out beautiful green spaces that isolated this part of Spain from the takeover by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate in A.D. 711. It was originally inhabited by the Celtic peoples during the Middle Paleolithic era (90,000 B.P.). The area was incorporated into the Roman Empire in A.D. 19 and became a Roman province in the third century. While initially mining the area for gold and iron, the Romans, as in every area of colonization introduced grapes to the region as well. Then there was a succession of rulers including the Visigoths, the Christian kingdom of Asturias, the Leon Kingdom, the Castile government and finally granted autonomy in 1936 (where are those Visigoths wanting their land back?)

This is still a place known for its seafood. Only Japan consumes more seafood than Spain. Galicia may even top the Japanese, if that's possible, with oyster and mussel beds in every ria. Every village on the coast has its own fleet of fishing boats that continuously supplies fresh seafood to a population where meat is just a footnote on every restaurant menu. This predilection for seafood may date back at least 500 years to the discovery of the Grand Banks Cod fishery off the northern coast of America when Spanish and Portuguese sailors brought back salted codfish to a protein deficient nation. If you have ever tried some of the wonderful tinned seafood (octopus, mussels and sardines) from Spain it probably came from Galicia. With that in mind, it is only cosmically just that Galicia has its own wine that marries so well with seafood. That wine is Albariño.

We know from history that the Romans introduced wine grapes everywhere they conquered and Spain was no exception. It is assumed that when they settled in the hills near Orense (now the capital of Galicia) about 40 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean 2,000 years ago that they brought grape vines with them. The first reliable record is of vineyards planted in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks at Armenteira in the Salnés Valley near the fishing port of Cambados. According to legend, Albariño is descended from cuttings of Riesling brought from Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau by some of these Cistercians. Recent DNA analysis by ampelographers has proven the legend false, so the origin of this distinct varietal is still unknown.

More vines were planted later on lands granted to the monastery of Santa María de Oia about forty miles south. From these early beginnings evolved the vineyards of Val do Salnés to the north and those of O Rosal and Condado do Tea to the south. There are subtle differences between the wines from either location. The vineyards of Salnés form an open bowl facing west to the ocean from the terrace of the Martin Códax winery on Burgan's Hill, above Cambados the vines catch the afternoon sun but also are exposed to whatever blows in from the Atlantic Ocean. Rosal and Condado vineyards face south and are affected by the ocean less directly. Their vineyards are drier and warmer than those of Salnés; they get less rain and have more hours of sun.

There are other differences as well. Vines in Salnés are planted on homogeneous granitic sand while those of Rosal and Condado are planted on crumbled schist, clay and rolled pebbles. The differences in weather and soils don't make one area better than the other but each vineyard type does impart different characteristics to the tastes of the wines. A Salnés Albariño is bolder with good acidity, a pungent aroma and a hint of pineapple in the flavor. Rosal wines are more elegant and supple. If Salnés wines express the varietal, Rosal and Condado wines express the terroir or ecosystem that the vines are grown in. I was unable to find an example of a Rosal or Condado for this article but have tasted them in the past; so you'll just have to take my word on this.

While the Albariño grape has grown for centuries, it wasn't until 1980 when the local board of control recognized the distinct qualities of Albariño by establishing a new denominacion de origen (Rias Baixas) for the varietal. The aroma and bite for which Albariño is celebrated owe much to the cooling proximity of the ocean and the stress-free growth assured by ample spring rains. The rainy weather does impose some negative effects with rot but the vines have been trained over high horizontal pergolas which give the vineyards a distinctive look.

The modern world intruded into the Galicia region when the Martín Códax winery was founded in 1986. The winery founded by a group of forward-thinking growers was equipped with modern equipment such as new presses, stainless steel fermentation tanks and refrigeration for cool fermentation. The wines produced by these facilities revealed Albariño's hidden qualifies. It was with the profound changes in vinification equipment and techniques that the world finally took notice of the distinct varietal characteristics that Albariño is now available in Green Bay.

The first wine is Condes de Albarei (DO) Rias Baixas- Val de Salnès $10 if you buy four at Woodman's 12 percent alcohol. The wine is very appealing to your eye in the glass. It has a very light straw color with hints of green. The aroma is dominated by peach and apricot with hints of pineapple and passion fruit. The acidity is well balanced with good mouthfeel. The taste is citrus with some mineral undertones. The wine was fermented with wild yeast (the yeasts that are floating around in the air). The wine was made with the best free run juice and fermented at low temperatures to maintain freshness. This wine would pair well with any type of shellfish from crab cakes to shrimp scampi delicious stuff. Buy this one for great summertime drinking.

The second wine is from the Martin Codax winery, which is a cooperative. The winemaker is Katia Alverez. The Burgàns Albariño was $11 at Costco and is 12.5 percent alcohol. As I mentioned earlier the Martin Codax winery is a modern facility with double jacketed stainless steel vats with precise temperature control. This wine has a little more green to the color but is also nice to look at in the glass. The aroma has more of a Granny Smith apple smell to it with just hints of apricot and peach. The taste is a bit richer because of the higher alcohol but also juicy with fresh citrus flavors. The finish is definitely varietal rather than minerally. Both these wines should drink well through 2018 both are screw capped rather than cork, which in my opinion maintains the freshness longer. Both wines are 100 percent Albariño.

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