Thursday, June 18, 2009

What we don't know about Albarino

Albarino is an increasingly popular grape in both Europe and the U.S. It's a sommeliers' darling because of its crisp food-friendliness. And it has the cachet of being a relatively new find -- Rias Baixas, its region of origin, didn't receive official recognition until the mid-1980s.

Because it's pretty new on these shores, our knowledge of it is limited. People tend to compare it to two other crisp, refreshing wines: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. But Albarino is unique, and perhaps we're not drinking it as we should.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Rias Baixas and taste dozens of Albarinos, as well as Albarino-based blends. There I learned that my received wisdom about Albarino -- a fresh, full-flavored, slightly salty and floral grape that's good with seafood -- is only part of the story.

Common mistake No. 1: Albarino, like Sauvignon Blanc, does not age well and should be drunk as fresh as possible.

This is just not true. Part of my impression may have been colored by the fact that 2008 was a difficult vintage in Rias Baixas, and almost without exception the 2007s were better.

That said, Albarino is high in acidity: not as high as Riesling, but high enough to keep it fresh for several years. I found in most cases the 2004s and 2005s were still quite fresh; secondary characteristics don't seem to really blossom until 6 years after harvest. Moreover, in most cases I liked the slightly older wines better. Albarino seems very tight upon release and seems to need a couple of years to express itself. So don't rush to open your '07s, and definitely sit on your '08s a while.

Common mistake No. 2: Albarino should not be aged on its lees or in oak barrels.

Some American wine geeks shy from oak-aged whites because the idea conjures impressions of fat, sweet, woody California Chardonnays. But done correctly, oak aging adds a layer of sophistication to many whites, and now that I've tried a few, I'd have to add Albarino to that group. The grape has enough acidity to maintain its character.

As for lees aging, all of my favorite wines had some degree of it. Lees aging broadens the mouthfeel of a wine that can be sharp and narrow. I'm a big fan now and suggest you look for lees-aged Albarinos whenever possible.

Common mistake No. 3: Small wineries make better Albarinos than big wineries.

It's just not true. Martin Codax, a co-op, is the largest winery in Rias Baixas, controlling 13% of the region's vineyards. Its wines are distributed in the U.S. by Gallo, which gives them an unfortunate image of not being quite as exclusive as some smaller brands.

However, the 2008 Martin Codax Rias Baixas Albarino was easily the best of the '08s I tried. One caveat is also a reason -- it's still aging in tanks while other '08s are already on the market. Martin Codax winemaker Luciano Amoedo, a 9th generation winemaker, is not afraid to experiment, despite the brand's relatively large commitments: he has little tanks all over the place. And he doesn't need immediate cashflow; the co-op is relatively flush. So Amoedo decided the '08s needed a little malolactic fermentation to curb the acidity (many producers did this with the '08s) and more tank time, and tasting the sample, he was completely right.

Moreover, Martin Codax, at $14.99, is probably the cheapest brand on the market. So score one for Gallo.

Common mistake No. 4: Albarino is meant for shellfish only.

It is great with shellfish. But you should try it with grilled pork. Mmm.

I've got more to say about Rias Baixas, but I'll leave it for another day.

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