June 9 of 2021 - WSET

Spain’s star white grape variety is enjoying some of its greatest popularity, riding the wave of excitement for cooler-climate wines that balance bracing acidity with pronounced intensity flavours.

In this post we’ll take a closer look at the grape’s key characteristics, how winemaking techniques are evolving, and Albariño’s growing success abroad.

A bit of background

Although Albariño is allowed in every Galician DO, it is synonymous with DO Rías Baixas, where it represents over 95% of plantings. Within the DO there are 5 sub-zones. From smallest to largest in terms of vineyard area, they are Soutomaior, Ribeira do Ulla, O Rosal, Condado do Tea, and Val do Salnés. It is this last region which is perhaps the most familiar to wine lovers, home to over 60% of annual grape production and almost 70% of the DO’s wineries. Val do Salnés is also home to the smallest division of plots resulting in just 0,5 ha of vines per grower, compared to 2,5 ha per grower in O Rosal. With this in mind, one starts to understand the crucial role that cooperatives have played in the rise of Rías Baixas in general and in the Salnés Valley in particular.

Starting in the late 1980s, around the same time the DO was officially recognized, several well-managed coops formed and set about creating strong brands that became well known both at home and abroad, launching Albariño into the spotlight. Examples included Martín Codax (the DO’s largest producer) and Condes de Albarei (owners of the single estate boutique winery Pazo Baion), later followed by the Cooperativa Vitivinicola Arousana (creators of the Paco & Lola brand). The efforts of these and other historic producers such as Zárate, Gerardo Méndez (Do Ferreiro), Pazo Barrantes, Pazo Señorans, Terras Gauda, Fillaboa, and Fefiñanes have paved the way for a current generation of vinegrowers that include Forjas del Salnés, Fulcro, Albamar, Tricó, Pazo de Barrantes, and Lagar de Pintos among others, who are now pushing the grape to new heights.

In The Vineyard

While the area’s abundant lush landscape is a sight for the eyes, it does not come without its challenges for grape growers. The region’s moderate maritime climate brings over 1,600 mm of rainfall per year, which results in high disease pressure and potentially lower levels of sunlight during the growing season.

Having said that, several moderating factors help the vines to produce healthy, ripe fruit each vintage. Firstly, Albariño’s thick skins provide an important defense against fungal disease. Secondly, the grape is early-ripening, ensuring sufficient sugar production before the fall rains come. Thirdly, the traditional pergola vine training plays an essential role. This overhead system is taller than the average person and allows grapes clusters to hang below a horizontal canopy of leaves, which encourages air circulation and reduces disease pressure. According to Eulogio Pómares of Bodegas Zárate, Albariño was originally bush trained, but the lack of airflow between grape clusters meant that rot would quickly spread, causing much of the harvest to be lost. While the pergola was implemented several centuries ago in order to minimize the spread of oidium and mildew, it’s provided other benefits as well, allowing thousands of Galician smallholders to plant additional crops beneath the vines in what was historically a subsistence economy. In the Salnés Valley today over 90% of vineyards are still pergola-trained, and while the overhead canopy has been criticized in the past for not allowing enough sunlight to reach grape clusters, the system offers clear benefits in an ever-warmer world. By partially shading the grapes, sugar production is slowed while acidity is more easily retained. It should be said that “low” acidity isn’t a current concern within the DO, with levels of tartaric acid regularly surpassing 6,5 g/l and reaching up 8 g/l in some wines. These numbers, found just as easily in German Rieslings, hint at the incredible freshness offered by Albariño.

In The Winery

Albariño is often summed up as fruity, floral, crisp, and clean. As an aromatic grape variety, modern wines have typically been vinified anaerobically, protecting the fruit, grape must, and fermenting wine from oxygen in order to preserve its elevated varietal aromas. Inert vessels, lower fermentation temperatures, and selected yeast strains have all played a key role in producing this early-drinking style that grabbed consumer’s attention both at home and abroad.

While this style remains true for many examples, a wonderful article written recently by Ferran Centelles for subscribers shows just how diverse these categories can be depending on sub-zone, even before we consider various winemaking techniques.

The cooler Val do Salnés sub-zone displays flavours at the just-ripe end of the spectrum, with notes of apples, citrus fruits and orange blossom. Acidity levels here are usually the highest of all the sub-zones, explaining the use of malolactic conversion at times. In O Rosal, the more southerly latitude and south-facing slopes bring about riper aromas, such as peach and apricot. As Condado do Tea is located equally south yet further inland, temperatures are even warmer and tropical fruits such as pineapple are telltale flavours.

Once the above style was well established, it was only natural that producers would start to experiment with other winemaking techniques in order to diversify the offering and enhance the grape’s tremendous potential for making complex, age-worthy wines.

Starting with skin contact, the goal has been to enhance the extraction of Albariño’s high levels of aroma and flavour compounds while bringing some phenolic grip to the wine’s texture. Assuming the grapes are fully ripe, skin contact can also be attractive in cooler vintages as the extraction of potassium from the skins increases the juice pH and helps lower acidity somewhat.

Lees ageing brings yet another layer of textural complexity, lending a softer body to the wine along with yeast-derived secondary flavours such as bread dough and pastry. Some producers have invested in concrete eggs, which are thought to set up convection currents that naturally mix the lees during maturation. Lees ageing has the added benefit of increasing a wine’s longevity, acting as a natural preservative that helps retain freshness during bottle ageing.

The use of wood for both fermentation and ageing has also made its way (subtly and successfully) into many wineries. Eulogio Pomares reminds us that up until the formation of the DO and the proliferation of stainless steel, Albariño was typically fermented in casks made from locally abundant chestnut. Several producers still use chestnut, while others prefer French oak. Regardless, with some exceptions, the casks tend to be old and large thus reducing the wood’s role to a controlled micro-oxygenation that can broaden mouthfeel and initiate the development of tertiary notes such as beeswax, lemon curd, honey, toast, nuttiness, and an oiliness that lands somewhere between lanolin and petrol.

Add to this the nuanced savoury flavours gained through native yeasts, along with malolactic conversion (the latter limited to the Val do Salnés), and the options for producers these days seem almost endless.

Albariño Abroad

From Albariño’s humble beginnings back in 1990 when Jorge Ordoñez is given credit for exporting the first wines to the US, today over 30% of total production is exported, the bulk of which goes to the US and the UK. Portugal has also contributed to the grape’s fame abroad through their equally impressive Alvarinhos produced in Vinho Verde, all of which led Pedro Ballesteros to state in a Decanter article earlier this year that Albariño has become Iberia’s most international white grape.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the spread of Albariño plantings abroad is quite a complement. Thanks to rising consumer demand, the grape can now be found in California, Oregon, and Washington in the western US, along with Uruguay, Argentina, Australia and especially New Zealand. Bordeaux recently made headlines when they authorized the grape as well. From those first wines exported just three decades ago, Albariño has come a long way indeed.

Nygil Murrell