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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Is albarino the next great white wine? It depends.

Rodrigo Méndez, an experimental farmer and winemaker who pursues traditional methods of making albariño, at his winery in the Rías Baixas region of Spain on its Atlantic coast, where albariño wine is king, Aug. 2, 2023.

By Eric Asimov

Here in Rías Baixas, the Galician home of albarino in northwestern Spain, the most typical answer to a direct question is, “It depends.”

It’s not that Galicians are noncommittal or hedging their bets. It’s more that they are aware of the complexity of many situations and don’t want to overly simplify matters.

That’s why if you ask a winemaker here about the future of albarino, or best practices for growing the grapes or making the wines, the response you are most likely to get is, “It depends.”

The answers to these sorts of questions are especially pertinent now as Rías Baixas is at an inflection point. Since Rías Baixas became an appellation in 1988, growers and winemakers have been encouraged to produce albarino and plenty of it.

The result has been a popular commodity wine: cheap, aromatic, easy to drink and forget. In many people’s minds, that’s all albarino can be.

Yet, as is so often the case with wine, ideas about a grape’s potential for complexity and aging become fixed not because of a grape’s actual limits but because few people have tried make anything more of it. But when a producer treats a grape more ambitiously, things begin to change — just look at aligote, silvaner and bobal. How albarino is farmed and what sort of wine is intended will dictate its potential.

Rather than settling for simple and fruity, some winemakers in Rías Baixas are producing singular albarinos — savory, saline and contemplative, perhaps recalling bottles of old.

“Albarino in the past was an aristocratic wine,” said Eulogio Pomares, a walking Galician history book who with his wife, Rebecca, makes excellent wines under the Zarate label. “People used to grow red grapes to drink every day. Only the rich grew whites.”

Granite, whether decomposed as soil or as granite bedrock underneath, shapes the wine and gives it character. So does the climate. Rías Baixas is among the muggiest areas in Spain, in part because of its proximity to the Atlantic. Mildew and rot are constant threats to the grapes.

Partly in response, the region developed a pergolalike parra system, in which vines are trained 6 to 8 feet off the ground on pillars to overhead crossbeams, all made of granite. The system permits air to circulate underneath, keeping the vines cool and mitigating the humidity while permitting subsistence farmers to plant other crops, like potatoes or carrots, underneath.

Rías Baixas is historically a land of tiny vineyards, and parras are everywhere — in backyards and in front. In 1988, the first year of the appellation, the region produced about 500,000 bottles, Pomares said. Now, annual production is about 50 million.

That’s become a problem as albarino has grown in popularity. Companies and cooperatives making cheap albarinos have planted in fertile, loamy soils. Big companies from outside the region have also moved in, hoping to add an albarino to their portfolio. They are outbidding local producers for grapes, said Alberto Nanclares who, with his partner, Silvia Prieto, makes superb wines under the Nanclares y Prieto label.

“These people are breaking the market,” he said.

Their wines may be cheap, but they cannot compare with those of Zarate or Nanclares y Prieto. A 2015 Zarate El Palomar, from a tiny vineyard planted by his wife’s family in 1850, was rich, pure and profoundly mineral. A Nanclares y Prieto 2013 Coccinella Cepas Vellas, made from century-old vines, was fresh and saline after 10 years.

Wines like these are relatively expensive for albarino, roughly $50 a bottle, if you can find them. They are made in tiny quantities and snapped up. But even basic cuvées from these producers, around $25, are a major step above the $12 bottles from the big companies and cooperatives.

The idea of making long-lived albarinos is not new. Two estates, Do Ferreiro and Pazo de Señorans, have produced wonderful, multidimensional albarinos since the 1990s.

Gerardo Méndez started Do Ferreiro with his father, Francisco, in 1988, the year the appellation was formed. His family had long made wine at their home, like many small farmers.

“When the wine was made at home, it was meant to age,” he said. “As Rías Baixas began, the companies said they needed wine that could go on the market right away.”

Méndez, who now works with his son, Manuel, and daughter, Encarna, saw no reason to change styles. His basic albarino is delicious and can age for a decade or more. But the real treat is the Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas, made from old vines around the Méndez home. A 2016 was gorgeous — intense, concentrated and textured.

Pazo de Señorans is an exception to the story of small producers. It’s an old estate, with a manor house and a large production facility. Marisol Buena runs the winery with her daughter Vicky Mareque Buena and the winemaker, Ana Quintela Suárez. Their first vintage also coincided with the beginning of the appellation, and they haven’t changed their style.

“People thought we were crazy,” Mareque said. “They thought albarino should be young and fruity. My mother and Ana said, ‘If they don’t buy it, we’ll drink it ourselves.’ ”

Their wines are built to last. My favorite is the Selección de Añada, a single-vineyard bottle that is aged at the winery for 10 years before release. The current release, 2013, is creamy, saline and mineral but very young. The 2005 was super-fresh, expressive and at a peak now.

6 Albariño producers

To seek out now

These six albarino producers, in alphabetical order, are among the best and most interesting in Rías Baixas.

Bodegas Albamar Pure, intriguing albarinos and many other wines, too. (Selections de la Viña, Brooklyn, New York)

Do Ferreiro Each of its albarinos is superb, especially Cepas Vellas, or old vines. Give it a minimum five years of aging. (De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, North Carolina)

Nanclares y Prieto Excellent albarinos, bottom to top. (José Pastor Selections/Llaurador Wines, Fairfax, California)

Pazo de Señorans Benchmark producer making top-notch albarinos. Selección de Anada is especially fine. (European Cellars, Charlotte, North Carolina)

Rodrigo Méndez Experimental, analytical producer who makes terrific albarinos under the Leirana label. (Olé & Obrigado, New Rochelle, New York)

Zarate Wonderful albarinos, especially single-vineyard El Palomar. (Rare Wine Company, Brisbane, California)

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