The Rain in Spain…
In Europe it is rare for a grape variety to expose itself. Most Europeans favour location, location, location on their labels, not grape varieties. The hip Spanish producers of Rias Baixas, however, realised the pronunciation of their regional name – Rias Baixas – might trip up their marketing efforts. Instead, they cannily opted to label their wine by its variety, albariño. Though albariño (ahl-bah-reen-yo) might twist a few tongues in Asia, it is easily pronounced by cultures familiar with Latin-based languages. Spain is highly admired for its sensual red wines, but its white wines are often decried as oxidized, sloppily made and sadly out-of-fashion. About a decade ago, albariño breezily burst back onto the catwalk and immediately became Spain’s sleek high-fashion white wine. Albariño is as quintessentially summer as a pair of white sandals. Lightly perfumed with grapefruit, lemon peel and white peach aromas, albariño is reminiscent of viognier or gewürztraminer, but in a much sexier body. The secret to albarino’s success is its stiletto acidity, which gives the wine a slim silhouette.
No one knows how albariño came into existence. Some producers believe Cistercian monks imported the variety in the 12th Century. Others suggest that Germans carried cuttings with them on pilgrimages to the region’s famed cathedral Santiago de Compostela. Because “alba’’ means white and “riño’’ means Rhine, the albariño name suggests an affiliation to riesling, a white variety that excels along the slopes of the lengthy Rhine River. Chalk this idea up to rural legend however as albariño was growing in Spain long before (12th century) riesling was recorded along the banks of the Rhine River in France and Germany (15th century). Plus, scientists find no genetic link.
Albariño thrives in the westernmost point of Spain, a region once thought to be where the world ended. The lush green hills of Rias Baixas (Ree-ahs Bai-zhaas) are not the romanticised arid lands of Don Quixote. Wet, windy and cool, albariño’s homeland would seem more akin to Ireland than Spain if it weren’t for the Moorish architectural flourishes and red-tiled rooftops. Settled by seafaring, fair-skinned Celts about two millennia ago, these ancient influences are still noticeable, for example, by the region’s penchant for potatoes, stolid medieval castles and a musical instrument called the Gaita that resembles a bagpipe.
Cultivated in one of the wettest wine regions in the world, albariño survives partly due to its thick skins, which protect it from moulds and rot. Because grape flavour is primarily derived from skins, Albarino’s thick outerwear enhances its aromatic intensity. Albariño bunches are loosely knit, which also helps prevent mildew. Still, moulds are always a threat, so vines in this damp region are mostly trained onto elevated marquis-like systems called parras to increase air circulation. The posts supporting the heavy vine-laden frames are hewn from ivory coloured granite and can be up to three metres high.
Albariño is so well matched for seafood – due to its fruit purity and fresh bracing acidity – that is has been nicknamed ‘’Wine of the Sea’’, which is not surprising as many of its vineyards are planted within view of the Atlantic Ocean. Rias refers to the coastal fjord-like inlets that jut rapier-like in from the sea and the southern clusters of these inlets are known as the baixas, or lower inlets.