The albariño grape, though relatively unknown in Asia, makes an ideal white wine for summer.
The grape is known as albariño in Galicia in northwest Spain but is spelled alvarinho in neighbouring Portugal. There it is sometimes known as cainho branco. In all cases it is used to make varietal white wines.
Various reference books suggest Cluny monks brought the grape to the Iberian peninsula in the twelfth century. The term “alba-riño” means “the white [wine] from the Rhine, which suggests it could have been a riesling clone from either Germany or the Alsace region of France. Some oenologists have theorised the grape is a relative of the French variety petit manseng.
California grows albariño in the Santa Ynez Valley, and around the towns of Clarksburg and Los Carneros.
Australia started selling albariño as a varietal wine from the end of last century until, in 2009, DNA tests confirmed that the grapes were savagnin blanc.
Viticulturalists in Australia had been sold cuttings of French savagnin grape by mistake, meaning that almost all wine in Australia labelled as albarino was savagnin.
Spain produces a lot of albariño in the Rias Baixas “denominación de origen” (DO), or region of origin, around the town of Cambados. DO is the Spanish food and wine classification code, similar to the French appellation system.
Alvarinho is also common in the Vinho Verdhe region of northern Portugal, but officially it is only allowed to be grown in Moncao and Melgaco.
The grape is best known for its distinctive aroma. I tried a 2009 Pazo Barrantes from the Rias Baixas region of Spain. The nose is very similar to gewürztraminer – with hints of musk, rose petal and lychee, and sometimes apricot and peach. The flavours tend to depend on the level of ripeness of the grapes.
The wine feels light in the mouth and is appropriate for drinking on a summer’s day in Asia. The acidity in this grape variety is generally high, as was the case with this wine. This acidity gives a feeling of freshness, and helps it cope with oily or fatty foods.
The few years in bottle meant the 2009 edition had taken on a golden sheen, and the wine has a bone dry finish. Alcohol levels tend to be moderate, around 11.5 to 12 per cent. This is an easy-to drink wine with lots of character.
The other major white wine variety Spain and Portugal share is verdejo (in Spain) or verdelho (in Portugal).
Verdejo is grown in the Rueda region of northern Spain, near the river of the same name. In Portugal to the west, the grape variety is known as verdelho, and the river and region changes its name to Douro. Flavours change depending on the terroir where the grape is grown.
Wines designated as Rueda Verdejo must contain a minimum 85 per cent of verdejo. Grapes are generally harvested at night to ensure they are kept between 10 and 15C. The aim is to retain the fresh fruit flavours.
If harvested during the day in September, when temperatures can reach 30C, the juice will become oxidised and lose its freshness.
Verdejo wines are usually full-bodied yet soft, with medium acidity. They smell herbaceous and flowery, and they pair well with most seafoods. These wines should be served cold, so an ice bucket is a necessity in summer.
I tried a 2010 Marques de Riscal from the Rueda region. It was light and fresh and had a citrus tang. I found it quite refreshing, though verdejo does not have the pronounced aromas of albarinos.
Both grape varieties should be available in shops that specialise in Spanish wines.
Published in China Post, 23 August 2012, page 10, under the headline “Same grapes but different spelling, depending on country”. Find a link here.