Thursday, April 18, 2024

Spanish White Wines

For years, the mere mention of Spanish wine to an American wine drinker meant  red wine, and maybe a little pink. Foremost, were the big reds, Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero, all made from Tempranillo. 

Over time, Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache), Spain's major red grapes, built   name recognition, while Spanish white wines mostly were an afterthought, except, maybe, for fresh and crisp seafood-friendly Albarino, from coastal Galicia.   

Free photo close up on grapes seasonal fruits for winter

Today, wine drinkers look to such notable Spanish whites as Macabeo (Rioja and Navarra), Parellada (Cava) or Verdejo (Rueda). These indigenous grapes, plus a dozen or so others, are supplemented by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, adding  international grapes to local blends.

Growing these grapes can be a challenge, as the weather runs hot and cold in much of Spain. Grape growing in Spain is strongly influenced by the region's proximity to large bodies of water.  Galicia, in the northwest, is near the Atlantic Ocean.  Across the country, in the northeast, Catalonia, has a long coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. 

White varieties like Parellada, Godello, Albarino, Loureira and Treixadura are ideally suited for mild climates in these coastal areas. Hardier, thick-skinned grapes, like Verdejo, survive the hot summer days in the interior.

The broad plains and mesas in the center of the country are subject to more climate extremes, with freezing winter temperatures and blazing hot summers in Rioja, Navarra, Rueda and Valdepenas. The same temperature variations are common in southern Andalucia, site of Sherry production, made from white grapes like Palomino and Pedro Ximenez.

Here's a closer look at four of Spain's most popular white wines; Ribera del Duero is primarily a red-wine region:

Catalonia -- This is Spain's region of diversity and it all starts with Barcelona, the great Mediterranean city of architecture, food and, of course, wine. The city's many excellent restaurants and tapas bars serve a wine variety of wine, including CAVA, Spain's celebrated sparkling wine, stoppered with cork from locally grown cork oaks. 

Catalonia, or Catalunya in Catalan, produces a wide range of crisp dry whites, from the same grapes used in CAVA, like Macabeo, all are available from one of Spain's most important wineries, Familia Torres.  And don't miss the opportunity to try the Garnacha-based red wines of Priorat.

Galicia -- Although there are five DO wine regions in the autonomous region of Galicia, the one with the best-known white wine is Rias Baixas, and its famous Albarino. Not long ago, Rias Baixas white wines were like the light and dry Vinho Verde, made not far away, south of the river Mino in Portugal, but Albarino changed things for Rias Baixas wines.  Another rising star pf Spanish white wine is Godello, a major variety in Valdeorras and Riberia Sacra DOs.

Free photo front view fresh mellow grapes green grapes on the dark surface wine fresh grape fruits tree plant ripe

The western terminus of the famed Camino de Santiago (Saint James Way),  stretching from southern France through Spain is in the Galician cathedral city of Santiago de la Compostela.

Rioja -- The history of Rioja white wine is spotty, with a simple local variety wrongly named "Malvasia," once widely planted, until the 1970s, when Riojan winemakers upgraded to Macebeo (known locally as Viura). 

Today, a mutation of Tempranillo, called Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntes (not related to the Argentine Torrontes) and Macebeo are the main Rioja whites, with Verdejo, Garnacha Blanco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay of lesser interest.

Along with updating the vineyards, Riojans have made big changes in white wine making.  Gone are the over oaked, oxidized wines, replaced by cold-fermented fresh and fruity whites that may be lightly oaked.

Navarra -- East of Rioja, across the Ebro river is Navarra, a region not as well-known to American wine consumers as Rioja, but with a range of white, pink and red wines, worthy of a close look.

Climate plays a role in dividing the region into five sub-regions, with Ribera Baja, historically considered the most important.  Unlike Rioja, Navarra prefers Chardonnay as its primary white grape, backed up by Viura (Macabeo), but goes with Tempranillo as the favorite red grape, supported by Garnacha. 

Macabeo, seasoned by a little oak, can be a wine worth aging.  Add Chardonnay to the mix and you have a unique Navarran blend that competes with international white blends.  Navarra is also known for its rose wines, especially Garnacha rose from Chivite. 

The Navarran city of Pamplona is the site for the annual craziness known as the  Running of the Bulls, immortalized in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and "Death in the Afternoon".

Food Friendly Wines

For Spanish white wine, the traditional choice is fresh fish, grilled or served in a light salsa and shellfish, especially in a paella. Tapas call for a dry fino Sherry, and if foul is more to your liking, then spit-grilled or rotisserie chicken is good with a dry, or maybe a medium-dry, white wine.  

Spanish red wines are meant for red meat, especially asada, hot off the grill, or in a fragrant stew like estofada de carne.

Don't get caught in a food box, though.  Be creative and, most important, go with what you like. 

Next post: When Merlot Went "Sideways"

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