Albariño, the Gastronomic Grape

USAGE, COMPARISONS, DISPUTED ORIGINS


I first began working with Albariño in Hawaii in the mid-‘90s, finding its combination of tropical perfume, dryness, citrusy acidity and minerality to be a perfect match with dishes incorporating the briny tastes of Island fish (especially moi, onaga and opakapaka) and fresh sea vegetables (like limu and ogo). 

Albariño responds particularly well to tart ingredients (especially in citrusy ceviches and vinegary adobo style seafoods), and the use of vinegars and citrus juices is certainly common enough throughout Southeast Asia as well as in Japanese cuisine (re ponzu); all these traditions contributing to the Hawaiian Islands’ cross-cultural culinary heritage.

Recently I also spent a year on the coast of Georgia, where the Low Country cuisine is not nearly as varied a culinary culture. But typically medium bodied Albariño worked for me in many a multi-course/wine event as a good ‘tweener – bridging the gap between, say, an appetizer served with lighter white and a white meat course calling for a fuller bodied white like Chardonnay


Hawaiian moi, the traditional fish of ali'is (royalty)

For example, we might start a meal with grilled Wild Georgia Shrimp washed down with a light, snappy champagne, progress to a zesty Albariño with blue crab cakes dabbed with sweet corn relish, before moving on to a heavier Chardonnay with a butter fried fish or creamed chicken and mushrooms (and eventually ending up with Low Country style barbecued meat courses with collard greens, predictably delicous with big, luscious Zinfandel or Petite Sirah).

In this respect, as a between-wine, Albariño serves a role similar to Pinot Gris, Grüner Veltliner, and dry style Rieslings. But there are differences advantageous to Albariño: Albariño is markedly crisper than Pinot Gris, with a more expansive, readily appealing stone fruitiness (i.e. peach, apricot, nectarine-like). A good Grüner Veltliner can be just as perfumed and minerally as an Albariño, but is also typically more acidic and austere. 



Bottles of Bokish and Abacela Albarino with appropriate foodstuffs (olive oil and lemons)

Both Riesling and Albariño are flowery and citrus scented, which undoubtedly gave rise to the mythical notion that Albariño is a clone of Riesling, transplanted by twelfth century German monks. As the regularity council in Spain’s Rias Baixas reminds us, the grape is indubitably indigenous to Galicia

Be as it may, even the sharpest Albariño is rarely as tart, or fusel oil-like, as a dry style Riesling; but rather, typically creamy, even buttery in texture in a way Riesling never is. In recent years Albariño has also been likened to a “light-weight Viognier,” which is not just insulting, but absurdly inaccurate. Despite its Viognier-like floral fruitiness, the minerally notes typical of Albariño are almost never found in Viognier. 

Classic Albariño also tends to be lighter in weight than a Viognier, and is decidedly zestier in acidity – two qualities giving it a distinct advantage over Viognier in terms of seafood versatility (which is not to say Viognier is not as food-worthy – it’s just different, asking for more aggressive, meatier matches in a fashion closer to Chardonnay than to Albariño).


Map of Rias Baixas, the birthplace of Albarino

To deepen your understanding of Albariño, you need to get a feel for its native Rias Baixas in Galicia, occupying the northeast corner of Spain directly north of Portugal along the Atlantic. Unlike the rest of Spain (associated with dry, hot landscapes) Rias Baixas is decidedly coastal/oceanic; thus green and verdant. Which also means heavy rainfall, high humidity, and narrower diurnal swings (temperatures rarely above 86º F., but almost never below 50°). 

Albariño makes up close to 95% of Rias Baixas’ plantings (about 7,500 acres total) simply because it is the only grape with thick enough skins and high enough phenolics to thrive in these challenging conditions. Although vineyards were traditionally trained on pergolas to circulate air and avoid rot and mildew, modern day trellising and opened canopy management is prevalent today. 

Like all great wine regions, Rias Baixas is a convergence of climate, soil and grape adaptation. Of its five recognized sub-zones, the finest is Val do Salnés, a gently rolling, alluvial basin situated at the northern end of this DO (Denominación de Origen). This is also the coolest, wettest section of Rias Baixas, but Albariño responds positively to Val do Salnés’ well drained, rocky, pervasively granitic soils (even trellis posts are made out of granite rather than wood). In Rias Baixas, Albariño’s lime/peach fruitiness, flinty minerality, and occasional salinity (derived from the sea salt saturated air) are as much reflections of the grape as terroir.


Markus and Liz Bokisch in their Mokelumne River-Lodi Albarino planting

AMERICAN BREAKTHROUGHS

So how has Albariño fared in the U.S. thus far? In the mid-‘90s Louisa Lindquist (wife of Bob Lindquist of Qupe) planted the first commercial block of the grape in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley, but Havens Winery produced the first American bottling – a ’99 made from a two-year old Los Carneros/Napa Valley planting (the first vintage of Lindquist’s Verdad Albariño was a 2000).


Both Lindquist and Michael Havens were inspired by the relatively cool, coastal, Rias Baixas-like climates of their respective terroirs, and early results were both brilliant and uneven. The first vintages of Havens captured the intensely honeyed, lime and pear-like aspects of Albariño; but on the palate, the grape’s intrinsically high acidity, tough skins and dark seeds were borne out by sharp, grapefruity, mildly bitter, ultimately austere sensations.

I’ve liked the Verdad Albariños a lot: similar to the Havens bottlings but even lusher in the nose – juicy pear and traces of minerality tinged with orange/lemon essences – and on the palate, the zesty, mouthwatering flavors possessing everything but the rounded, viscous, fluid and textured qualities Rias Baixas grown Albariños seem to attain with ease.



The author with Abacela owner/grower Earl Jones in 2000, when this Umpaqua Valley estate was still sparsely planted

In 2000 I paid a visit to Abacela in Southern Oregon's Umqua Valley; a hillside vineyard dedicated to Spanish varieties (although a source of intense Syrahs as well). Proprietor Earl Jones had just planted his first block of Albariño on a north facing slope, but I’ve since showcased some of his Tempranillo (strikingly original, dense, leathery, liqueur-like concentrations) in my restaurants.


But here in 2008, the plantings I’m most excited about are those of Bokisch Vineyards' Markus and Liz Bokisch in Lodi. The Bokischs are major grape growers in the region; farming some 1,300 acres, mostly in the hillier eastern end of the AVA, the grapes (primarily the commercially significant varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah) going to some 50 different wineries. 50 acres of Bokisch Ranches are devoted to Spanish grapes; and out of that, maybe about 7 acres end up in wines bottled under the Bokisch label.

There’s some salient history behind the Bokischs’ devotion to Spanish grapes. In the late 1990s Markus was charged by Joseph Phelps Vineyards to source Rhône varieties for the winery’s now-defunct Vin de Mistral line. It was while driving back and forth between Napa Valley and Lodi that Markus became inspired; the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta reminding him of the Delta del Ebro in Spain where many of his close Catalan speaking relatives still live (although Markus was raised in California, he spent many childhood summers in Catalonia). After leaving Joseph Phelps, Liz and Markus moved to Spain to work in the Spanish wine industry; before returning to California in 1995 to start their own grape growing business.



Lodi grown Bokisch Ranches Albarino

Hence, the Bokisch brand specializes strictly in Albariño, Garnacha (white and black skinned variants), Tempranillo and Graciano. The reds are solid and still evolving – their velvety Graciano (a fading companion piece to Tempranillo in its native Rioja region) showing the most complete qualities among the reds – but it is the Bokisch Albariño that really shines. 

Early vintages of Bokisch Albariño were estate grown blends from two of Lodi’s sub-regions: one from a 3-acre “mother block” (behind their home) falling within the Mokelumne River AVA, a flat site sitting in relatively deep, sandy alluvial loam typifying Lodi’s oldest growths; and the other from their Terra Alta Vineyard falling within the Clements Hills AVA, in a slightly higher elevation, sloping, shallow (three feet), volcanic gravelly loam over hard clay, typical of eastern Lodi where it transitions into the Sierra foothills.

Since the summation of degree days in Lodi is low Region IV on the U.C. Davis/Winkler scale – a warm Mediterranean climate, resembling center-of-Spain more than to Atlantic coastal Spain – it has been interesting to see how the originally cold-climate adapted Albariño has adjusted to this part of California. In the 2007 vintage the Bokischs split their production into the two appellations, Mokelumne River and Clements Hills. 



Bokisch Ranches' sloping, clay loam based Terra Alta Vineyard in Lodi's Clements Hills appellation

My notes, gathered at their dining room table this past June:

2007 Bokisch Vineyards, Clements Hills (Lodi, California) - This bottling, sourced from Bokisch Ranches' Terra Alta Vineyard, is a success because it retains all the fresh, natural acidity associated with the grape without excess sharpness, as well as the lithe, flowing, creamy textured feel that distinguishes Spanish grown Albariño. As you would expect, the warmer climate yields a distinctly Californian tropical accent in the nose – flower and mandarin orange mixed with sweet apple and apricot-like varietal notes – and the body veers into a full (14% alcoholl) rather than medium range. Otherwise, the flavors are crackling crisp, mildly grapefruity, pushing the apricot qualities into a long, lush finish.

2007 Bokisch Vineyards, Mokelumne River (Lodi, California) - More for aesthetic as opposed to practical purposes, the Bokischs’ backyard Las Cerezas Vineyard is a small-vine, high density planting (5’ by 5’ spacing). This competitive environment yields intense varietal fruitiness, but also slightly fatter, almost buttery textured qualities (none of the Bokischs see any oak). Orange/tangerine aromas are tinged by tropical flower and pineappley fragrances; and on the palate, these qualities turn citrusy and apricot-like, finishing lightly tart, soft and easy, if not quite as finely delineated as the Terra Alta Vineyard bottling.

Traditional pergola alongside modern day trellising in Rias Baixas Albarino vineyard

SIX FROM RIAS BAIXAS

This past June I also had the opportunity to taste six Spanish Albariños in one sitting; a process revealing some pleasing variations of style and distinctions. All are excellent, but in order of my preference:


2007 Albariño de Fefiñanes (Rias Baixas, Spain) - Imported by Fran Kysela MS, Palacios de Fefiñanes makes a sleek yet razor sharp, subtly intense style, starting with the full varietal armament of minerals, wildflower, and peachy stone fruitiness in the nose. Zesty, medium weight, sinewy and steely on the palate, releasing crisp apple/pear sensations in the finish.


Martin Codax winemaker Katia Alvarez (thedrinksbusiness.com)

2007 Martín Códax (Rias Baixas, Spain) - Based in the Salnés Valley, this bodega produces Albariño under three labels; its value priced Burgáns, in particular, being a softer, deliciously peach infused example of the grape (and a great introduction for first-timers). The ’07 exemplifies the more complex bottlings under the Códax label; beginning with fruit forward peach and nectarine aromas harmonized with citrus, with violet/lavendery notes in the backdrop. Tart edged and medium bodied on the palate, the lemon and peach qualities mingling with subtle yet distinctively minerally sensations.

2007 Paco & Lola (Rias Baixas, Spain) - This firm is owned by a cooperative of some 400 growers concentrated in Val do Salnés, and distributed in the U.S. by Jess Jackson’s Sovereign Wine Imports. The advantage is that their winemaker culls only the growers’ best fruit (less than 30% of production) for this bottling, which portrays more lavender and violet scented, distinctively kitchen herby (basil leafy) sides of the grape, with a vibrant, citrusy tart fruitiness finishing light and easy. About 10,000 cases yearly.


During the 1990s, the favored "go-to" brand of Rias Baixas Albarino in our own restaurants


2006 Morgadio (Rias Baixas, Spain) - Adegas Morgadio is a 50-acre estate imported by Steve Metzler’s Classical Wines, who pioneered the distribution of handcrafted Spanish wines in the U.S., beginning in the late ‘80s. The vineyard lies in the sub-zone of Condado de Tea; situated further from the Atlantic coast, a cooler, less humid, more rugged higher elevation (up to 750 feet) terroir than Val do Salnés, and producing a somewhat lighter yet lively, fragrant style of Albariño. The ’06 is honeyed, nearly tropical in the nose, with tangerine and lime nuances; crisp, creamy textured flavors finishing fresh and clean.

2006 Adegas Valmiñor (Rias Baixas, Spain) - Kysela’s “value” import, this is a more strongly chalky mineral style of Albariño, its subtle pear/apple and wildflower notes tucked beneath the stony profile. The feel is lightly tart, and the body on the light side of medium; lime, chalk and anise-like flavors finishing light and easy on the palate.

2006 Don Olegario (Rias Baixas, Spain)
This Val do Salnés family estate produces a denser, sharper style than what many Albariño drinkers in the states may be accustomed to. Whipped cream and lemon prevail over hints of white peach in the nose; on the palate, a citrus tartness leads off, followed by dry, stony, almost licorice-like qualities, but finishing with a touch of sweet apple laced with lemon.

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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.