Rías Baixas Albariño: A White Wine for all Seasons

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Back in March 2008 I wrote my first post for the Kitchn. The topic was the Albariño wines from Rías Baixas, which is located in Galicia, in northwestern Spain. This week, almost six years later, I am revisiting the wines, to check out what is new and what might have changed.

Since my first visit to Rías Baixas back in 2006 I have consistently loved its Albariño wines. While some of the wines are definitely better than others, I can honestly say that I have never tasted a bad wine.

The Albariño grape is an easy grape variety to love. In my view it appeals both to the new or occasional wine drinker as much as it does to the exploring wine geek.

For readers not so familiar with Albariño, it is a white grape native to Rías Baixas. In terms of taste and texture, imagine that you crossed the crisp, refreshing acidity and citrus aromas of a Riesling, with the stone fruit aromas of a Pinot Grigio, and floral lift plus slight fleshiness of a Viognier — there you have something akin to an Albariño.

Depending on the producer, vintage and vineyard site, Albariño wines can be light to medium plus in body. They are typically unoaked (though some producers make small experimental lots fermented and/or aged in oak), with vibrant juicy flavors.

Albariño at the Table

Albariño and fish or seafood have been natural partners and friends at the table for centuries — so you cannot go wrong serving any Albariño with simple grilled or pan-friend white fish, mussels (any which way), oysters and so on. Since arriving in the United States, Rías Baixas Albariño has struck up a very cozy relationship with spicy foods – think South American as well as Asian for your inspiration.

Some of my favorite pairings are scallop or sea bass ceviche, Mexican fish tacos, grilled spicy shrimp, or linguine with jumbo lump crab, to which I like to add some chili flakes.

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Drink Now or Later?

For the most part Rías Baixas wines are made to be enjoyed within about two years of the vintage, when their fruitiness is most exuberant. However, personally, I prefer my Albariño wines with a little more age – say three to four years, when the dominant youthful fruitiness slightly wanes, allowing the tight, salty minerality to come to the fore. Either way, the wines are delicious.

Finding Albariño in the United States

According to the Rías Baixas regulatory body, the United States is the most important export market for their wines. Of the 30% that is exported, about half is sold to the US. Certainly, over the past ten years I have noticed a significant increase both in the number of different producers selling here, as well as the widening of availability. In fact since 2004 both the volume and value of Rías Baixas Albariño exports to the U.S. have quadrupled. No longer the exclusivity of the specialist retailer or upmarket wine bar I can find Rías Baixas Albariño selling in supermarkets as well as in more casual dining environments.

Such is the growing popularity of Albariño that wineries in the US (in California, Virginia and even on our very own Long Island) are starting to grow the grape and make Albariño wines.

New Innovations to Look For

Winemakers love to try out new things. I think this is especially important in a region such as Rías Baixas where essentially you are working with one grape variety. For quite a while, producers there have been experimenting with barrel fermentation and ageing as well as extended lees ageing before bottling. Latest rumblings are about experiments making sparkling wine. This could really work, as the Albariño grape has the necessary acid backbone and cool climate fruit profile. Unfortunately, these experiments tend to be on a very small scale and hence not exported.

A trend that we are seeing here is the production of single vineyard wines. Traditionally the wines are blends from several different vineyard sites, scattered throughout the Rías Baixas region. One of my recommended wines – the 2012 Pazo Baión Albariño — is actually a single vineyard wine.

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Mary's Albariño Recommendations

While some of the wines that are included in my review list were sent to me free as samples, I am a regular purchaser of Albariño wines. Every time I see a new label / new producer on a store shelf I have to buy it and try it!

Most of the Albariño wines I see in stores at the moment are from the 2012 vintage. Like in much of Europe, 2012 was a small (and challenging) vintage in Rías Baixas. But with ‘nature imposed’ lower yields, most of the wines are showing very good depth of flavors, balance and solid in structure.

2012 Santiago Ruíz O Rosal, Rías Baixas, $20

This is slightly unusual in that it is a blend rather than varietal Albariño. From the sub-zone ‘O Rosal’ this wine is a blend of 70% Albariño, 15% Loureiro, 10% Caiño Blanco and 5% Treixadura/Godello.

I wrote about the 2011 Santiago Ruiz wine earlier this year in May, as my wine of the week. This 2012 is equally juicy and vibrant – a little more youthful and exuberant in terms of its fruitiness. It is deliciously refreshing and packed with bright, citrus and stone fruit with an attractive spicy kick on finish.

2012 Pazo Señoráns Albariño, Rías Baixas, $25

This wine has long been the standard bearer for top, classic Albariño. This 2012 does not disappoint. Tight and minerally with a nicely layered nose of stone, orchard and citrus fruit. Appealing creaminess mid-palate. Racy spine of juicy acidity and a long lingering finish. Delicious now, but can also be cellared for up to five years.

2010 Arcan Albariño, Rías Baixas, $18

This is another wine that has featured as my Wine of the Week in the past. Made from Bodega Pombal a Lanzada, it has a nicely focused nose of lively citrus and stone fruit and a lifted floral perfume. Refreshing with ripe, creamy stone fruit flavors and an appealing fleshiness on the palate. It shows a spicy note and has a round, lingering finish.

2012 Albariño de Fefiñanes Albariño, Rías Baixas, $26

Another classic standard-bearer for the region and one that for me personifies pure elegance. Maybe it has to do with the label but this wine exudes a regal beauty. While packed with lively orchard and stone fruit, it is always the minerality and subtle hints of dried herbs – almost a tangy sea spray, that first appeal to me in this wine, particularly noticeable in this 2012 vintage. It is precise, and pure with excellent depth of flavor and definition. Long, lingering finish. This is another wine worth cellaring for a few years.

2012 Pazo Baión Albariño - Rías Baixas - $30

A bit on the pricey side. This was my first time to try this wine, which I believe to be a fairly recent project by the highly respected co-operative Condes de Albarei. Unusual, quite beautiful, tall bottle shape too – but possibly a bit awkward for your average buyer's refrigerator! It was not the easiest bottle to photograph either. That said the wine is very appealing. Tastes much richer, and riper than most of the other 2012 wines tasted. More exotic citrus – think clementine and navel orange and ripe peach. More fleshy with a crème Anglaise creaminess on the finish. Bright, refreshing acidity and a well-balanced, nuance of sweetness on the finish. An ambitious but well executed wine.

2012 A2O ‘Sobre Lias’ Albariño Rías Baixas, $17

Produced by the Bodegas Castro Martin, A20 is sourced from a plot of about 25 acres within the family vineyards. Very lively and refreshing showing a tasty contrast of zesty citrus and honeyed stone and yellow fruit with notes of dried herbs and a balsamic spiciness delicately woven through the flavors. Juicy, energetic finish.

2012 Zarate Albariño, Rías Baixas, $27

This is not your go-to everyday Albariño. Made from old vines (35+ years old), it is elegantly powerful, without being loud or flashy. Tight, taut structure frames an intensely flavorful wine that evolves in the glass over 20 to 30 minutes. Fuller in body, than most of the other wines reviewed, but not fat – the sprightly acidity and mineral backbone give the wine its vibrant energy. More mineral than fruit driven with a very long finish.

I would love to hear from readers on their favorite Albariño wines. Is it a wine you drink regularly, and if so, what do you like to eat with it?

(Image credits: Mary Gorman-McAdams)

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