Spanish White Wines

Can You Name One?

When you consider Spanish wines, what usually comes to mind are the reds from the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas, the sweet and dry sherries from Jerez (the word sherry itself is a vulgarization of the word Jerez), and the sparkling wine called cava from the Penedés area south of Barcelona. Ernest Hemingway, no stranger to a mellowing beverage, mentioned Spain’s excellent and inexpensive dry rosés on and off in his works, but by and large rosés are under the radar In the United States. Rarely does white wine come to mind – and that’s a shame. Spain, as the country with the world’s most total acreage devoted to vineyards, is home to an array of white wines ranging from the exotic, food-friendly albariño to the more neutral, clean, crisp viura and verdejo to the more familiar chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Albariño

Albariño, Spain’s signature white wine, is named for a grape grown in Galicia. It is to Spain what sauvignon blanc is to New Zealand and pinot grigio is to Italy, even more so in that almost nowhere else in the world is this grape grown. Almost exclusively bottled as a varietal (that is, with 100 percent albariño and no other grapes blended in), it is as unique as it is food-friendly. It unquestionably ranks as one of the world’s finest, albeit underappreciated, white wine varieties. It literally has no equal, although if asked to name one I would suggest New Zealand’s ripe yet racy sauvignon blanc. Or course albariño does not show the same herbal/grassy aromas and flavors, but in terms of being relatively light in body and displaying forward fruit as well as assertive, palate-cleansing acidity, New Zealand sauvignon blanc is probably albariño’s closest stylistic cousin.

These qualities — light body, searing acidity, and intense minerality — make you think of bottling an ocean breeze. They allow albariño to pair brilliantly with a plate of seafood, shellfish, or, more specifically, paella. Spain’s take on a rice dish, paella is typically studded with scallops, mussels, shrimp, chorizo, and/or chicken. It is finished with sherry and traditionally served in enormous pans designed to serve a dozen or even more at a time. Personally, I wouldn’t dream of eating paella without some albariño on hand. In my mind it certainly ranks as one of the greatest and most natural of food-and-wine pairings around. Albariño will also pair well with any seafood rich in mineral or slate qualities (think oysters), though a lobster drenched in butter would be better served alongside your favorite chardonnay, be it Californian or French white Burgundy.

Albariño’s home is in Galicia, just north of Portugal, and clearly it enjoys its dominating maritime influence. Galicia is lush and verdant, the landscape more reminiscent of Scotland or Ireland than the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. Given the grape’s undeniable success here, it’s hard to fathom why no one has tried to grow it elsewhere. I can’t recall having tried an albariño from any other country. While some experimentation with oak barrel fermentation has yielded modest success, it is the grape’s primary qualities that set it apart. For the most part, I don’t see how barrel fermentation (versus the normal stainless-steel tank) or any degree of aging can improve upon something that is so unique and so good as it is.

Albariño’s Portuguese genetic cousin, alvarinho, is used to make vinho verde. The latter cannot match the former’s exotic nature and in general pales, not only in color, but also in depth and intensity. Vinho verde on the whole is far more neutral in flavor despite its genetic similarity and geographic proximity to albariño.

There is also less variation vintage-to-vintage in the overall quality of albariños than there is with, for instance, wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux in France, where the whims of Mother Nature can wreak havoc on the grapes and resultant wines. Another consequence of this is price fluctuations, as demand for a “good vintage’s” wines inflate its cost to the consumer. Albariño’s prices remain consistent year to year. And its relative obscurity in this country also helps keep down the price tag. A few albariño producers to look for include Martin Codax, Pazo de Señorans, Burgans, and Fillaboa. Some friends and I recently enjoyed a bottle of this last one with tapas at Café Iberico on the near north side of Chicago.

Viura and Verdejo

Viura is the most important white grape of the Rioja area in north-central Spain. Rioja is an area far more renowned for its tempranillo-based reds than its whites; some people even think the Spanish word Rioja means red, but it is actually a contraction of “Rio Oja,” a tributary to the Ebro River that runs through the region. Viura makes a far more neutral wine than the aforementioned albariño, lacking the latter’s exotic aromas, flavors, and overall complexity. It has its place, however; if you consider the scorchingly high temperatures typical of the Iberian inland during the summer months, you can readily appreciate its uses. A lighter-bodied, lower-alcohol wine is much easier to drink in unbearable heat – a big, buttery, 14 percent alcohol chardonnay doesn’t quite quench the thirst as well.

I’ve heard some suggest that the full potential of viura has yet to be realized. While I’m not wholly convinced of this, I’d be thrilled to someday learn that there is more to this pleasant little white. Spain is still breaking out of the isolation that gripped the country during the long rule of Francisco Franco, who only passed away 30 years ago. The modernization of the country’s winemaking, investment in new equipment, and total commitment to cleanliness are relatively recent phenomena. For literally centuries, much of Spain “crafted” and drank an oxidized white of little character. So it’s not far-fetched to think there might be uncharted waters even for a grape they’ve grown for hundreds of years.

There has been some experimentation with oak barrel fermentation with mixed results. The Rioja bodega (winery) Conde de Valdemar offers a decent, well-made white, in addition to a stainless-steel tank fermented one. The unoaked white is a great warm-weather quaffer and pairs well with lighter (white) fish and perhaps a simple herb accent – nothing too heavy. An oaky one would seem more suited for scallops with garlic pan-fried in butter.

Verdejo is another indigenous Spanish grape not really cultivated elsewhere. It is grown in Rueda, northwest of Madrid and near the world-class red wine region of Ribera del Duero. Verdejo reminds me most of sauvignon blanc. In fact, sauvignon blanc is also grown in Rueda, and you can find varietal bottlings of both grapes as well as blends of the two together. Light in body and crisply refreshing (noticing a pattern yet?), verdejo can be called upon to quench your summer thirst and complement a salad or herb-seasoned fish or chicken dish.

Even more so than viura-based wines, you’ll rarely if ever encounter much oak influence with Verdejo. One benefit of this is the price – utilizing oak barrels for fermenting or aging wine inherently increases the price of the finished product. While viura and verdejo-based wines may not be the best white wines you’ll ever have, the flip side is that they won’t bleed your wallet dry either. Even $8-15 a pop will get you a good, genuine example of these wines, and that’s really not much to ask for something distinct, food-friendly, clean and easy. Really good albariños cost more along the lines of $13-20 a bottle, which is still relatively inexpensive. A high-quality chardonnay, be it from California or France, could easily cost twice that and more.

Other Spanish Whites

Some other Spanish whites that don’t fit into the above categories warrant mentioning. The Huguet family, longtime makers of the Spanish sparkling wine cava, make a “still” (nonsparkling) white called can feixes. It is blended mostly from grapes used for cava: xarello, parellada, and macabeo (the regional clone of viura), with a splash of chardonnay. Xarello has various “correct” spellings, so if you see any word close to this, it’s probably the same grape. This blend displays restrained flavors of lemon and unabashed minerality; this would serve as a good intro to Spanish whites for Pinot grigio fans. It’s available in Chicago, where I live; and I recently found it being poured at a small wine store in Leesburg, Virginia, when I was there for a wedding. The friendly and knowledgeable saleswoman and I agreed that it is definitely different, consistently good, and begging for a plate of oysters or shellfish.

Marqués de Cáceres, a Rioja winery, makes a white rioja called satinela. It is made mostly from late-harvest viura, with some malvasia filling out the blend. It is fairly sweet, hinting at apricots, white peaches, and even white flowers. Unlike some dessert wines, though, this finishes with good palate-cleansing acidity. The winery’s data sheet calls this “a very original wine in Rioja” and recommends having it with “foie gras, curry dishes, [and] sweet and sour dishes,” but I tend to think peach cobbler or poached pears. To offer both the forward fruit flavors and a crisp finish is no small feat in winemaking, especially considering its $10 price tag. In comparison, the world’s most esteemed dessert wines can cost $40 to $100 for a half bottle and much, much more.

Marqués de Alella, in the tiny area of Alella, makes a spritzy white called clasico that is another pleasant pairing with seafood. The area itself is near Barcelona and the Mediterranean so this is far from surprising. It is made from the local grape pansa blanca, which is their variety of the xarello grown nearby for the production of cava.

The winery Gramona makes a blend called gessami from muscat and sauvignon blanc that drinks like an Alsatian gewurztraminer. It is even sold in a tall, thin bottle like the wines from Alsace, France. It is fragrant, fruity, and even a tiny bit sweet. The muscat grape gives it an apricot/ripe peach quality, and the sauvignon blanc lends a floral note to it.

An important rule of thumb when buying Spanish white wines is that they are almost without exception meant to be drunk young. Stick with recent vintages, and if you can, hold up the bottle (if it’s clear glass) to any light: a young, acidic white wine should show a greenish tinge, and anything brownish should be shunned. If it doesn’t look fresh, it’s not likely to taste that way. This holds true for most less-expensive whites, not just Spanish white wines. I’ve heard some talk that albariño’s acidity is intense enough to merit some aging, but I’m unconvinced. I don’t understand why you would try. Exploit its intrinsic qualities: buy and drink them young, young, young. If five or 10 years from now we learn that they do age well, then all the better. For now I’ll stick with what I do know. On that note my thoughts are turning towards how to work some paella into my dinner plans sometime soon.

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