Thursday, August 10, 2023

Albarino & Alvarinho

When I first became aware of Spanish wine, in the late 1970s, there were two choices: Rioja and Sangria.  The market in Denver was flooded then with bottled Sangria and everyone seemed to have a personal recipe for mixing red wine with fresh citrus fruits.  

White and red Sangria

Serious wine collectors did not want to be seen in public holding a glass of Sangria, but they welcomed what was thought by the cognoscente to be the "Bordeaux of Spain."  

The claim was not so far fetched.  In the late 1800s, the twin destroyers -- powdery mildew and phylloxera -- mostly wrecked Bordeaux vineyards, causing growers and winemakers to head over the Pyrenees to Rioja and Navarra, where the devastation had not yet destroyed the vines, and hopefully continue to make red wine.

In those days, Spanish white wines were mainly of local interest. It was common then for vino blanco to be made in an oxidative style, usually caused when wines  stayed far too long in large oak casks or concrete tanks.  It took almost 100 years for the style of Spanish white wine to modernize, mainly in Rioja and among the producers of sparkling wine in Catalonia.  It was a struggle, though, between the old guard and the newer generation.

The era of popularity for Albarino came later, probably in the 1970s, when the wine world was awaking to the demand for fresher white wine that wasn't aged beyond recognition. Now, 50 years on and we have a whole different approach to making white wine in Spain, a thrust that many say can be attributed to the rise of Albarino.

Iberian Albarino

Albarino is an aromatic white grape grown mainly in the Spanish part of the Iberian Peninsula that juts out along the western edge of Continental Europe. The main area of propagation is Rias Baixas, in the district of Galacia.  Known for its cool climate and ample fresh seafood, Galacia is popularly called "Green Spain."  


Over decades, Albarino has developed a thick skin as a defense against the damp climate in Galacia. That thick armor protects the grape, allowing it to develop high natural acidity, layers of flavor and respectable alcohol for a white variety.

Albarino is mostly fermented and matured in stainless steel, although some wines are aged for short periods in oak.  Occasionally blended with other indigenous Spanish grapes, like Loureiro, both varietal and Albarino blends age better than most Spanish whites.

Here are five Rias Baixas Albarinos and one Napa Albarino to get you started: Vinos a Tresbolillo, Lagar de Pintos, Zarate, Martin Codax, Granja Fillaboa, Hendry Estate, Napa Valley.  Expect to pay between $20 and $25 for Albarino.

Iberian Alvarinho

Across the Minho river from Galacia, Albarino is known as Alvarinho, for this is Portugal and we have left Spain for a different look at the same grape. The iconic Portuguese white wine, Vinho Verde, "green wine," is so called not because of the color of the wine, but as a reference to the wine's early drink ability. 

You are likely to see Alvarinho spreading across the expanse of a pergola in the Vinho Verde region and even further south in Dao.  The advantages of using a pergola is it opens the vines and clusters to more air, reducing molds that develop in humid climates.  Designed like a high arbor, a pergola also provides space on the ground, under the pergola, for the cultivation of other crops.

Alvarinho clusters on a pergola

Alvarinho tends to crop heavy, producing grapes that rarely exceed 9% alcohol, a characteristic of Vinho Verde white wine.  Although there is some experimentation with barrel fermentation, Alvarinho is best suited to controlled fermentation in stainless steel, yielding fresh apricot flavors and bracing acidity, just the right combination for summer drinking. 

Portuguese Alvarinho, mainly from Vinho Verde, include Quinta da Raza, Vale dos Ares, Quinta da Aveleda, Muros de Melgaco. Vinho Verde is priced from $13 to $20.

Albarino or Alvarinho, the choice is yours, so treat yourself today to one (or both) of these refreshing Iberian wines. 

Next blog: Zinfandel: An American Wine

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