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Albariño

Albariño is Spain’s most famous white grape, best known from the country’s northwestern most department, Galicia, particularly the Rias Baixas (pronounced “Rias Bye-shas”) Denominación de Origen (D.O.). The jury is out on Albariño’s exact origins, but it is thought to have first appeared in the northwestern Iberian Peninsula, somewhere near the border of Galicia and northern Portugal. As a Spanish wine importer, I’ve worked with many producers of this grape and gotten to know it well. In this article I’ll share what I’ve learned from my work with those producers, from my own experience making Albariño in California, and we’ll hear from a grower who works with Albariño in both Virginia and Maryland. 

Albariño is a higher-acid grape, and the most classic styles of Albariño are restrained and elegant, highly mineral (stone-y), saline, and precise. More modern, mass-market versions are usually riper and have more emphasis on intense stone fruit and floral aromatics, with more weight and less pronounced — but still ample — acidity.

Albariño is an old variety whose parent varieties are unknown and thought to be extinct. In Rias Baixas it was a much less common grape prior to the phylloxera epidemic (the root louse that wiped out most of European viticulture in the late 1800s). Before phylloxera and for a period after, the area produced primarily reds, from grapes like Caiño Tinto and Espadeiro, leading to wonderful, high-acid red wines, which pair well with the area’s diverse seafood. At this time, Albariño was a small percentage of production in Rias Baixas. Today, Albariño accounts for 85% of all grapes grown in the D.O., and 95% of whites. Due to its predominance in Rias Baixas, when the D.O. was established in 1988, the name originally proposed for the region was simply “Albariño,” although it turned out that D.O.’s cannot be named after grapes.

What both Albariño and the red wines of Rias Baixas have in common is their intense acidity, which makes sense, as this region of Spain is famed for having the most diverse shellfish and seafood on earth. What better to pair with the freshness, salinity, and purity of seafood than fresh, pure, saline, mineral wine? 

Most Albariño is made to be consumed young — fresh, sometimes fruity, and retaining the aromatics from fermentation (esters), and most consumers seek to purchase the most recent vintages. However, wine made from the right sites and by the right hands can age gracefully for over a decade. The key to its ability to age — and the key to all dry white wines that age well — is its acidity.

Rias Baixas is divided into five sub-regions; however, the spiritual homeland of Albariño (and where most of it is produced) is without a doubt the ultra coastal Val do Salnés (Valley of Salnés), producing the most classic wines, and 67% of Spain’s Albariño. Salnés should probably be its own D.O. However, fantastic wines are produced in all of the sub-regions, as well as outside of them. The sub-regions are Condado de Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior, and Ribeira do Ulla. The Salnés adjacent VdT of Barbanza e Iria produces fantastic wine as well (VdT means Vino de la Tierra — a designation for certain regions that have not yet been integrated into the D.O. system), which some think should have been included in the Salnés sub-region, as it was left out due to political reasons.

In many of these sub-regions, as well as further inland in Galicia and in parts of northern Portugal, Albariño is often found in blends. Galician blends with Albariño usually have a good portion of Treixadura — a grape capable of great depth and complexity (but often lacking acidity) — and the highly acid and floral Loureiro. Occasionally there are small percentages of other Galician grapes, such as Torrentés (distinct from the Argentine Torrontés varieties), Godello, or Lado, among others. Galicia has one of Spain’s most diverse genetic pools. In northern Portugal, it appears in single varietal bottlings (under the Portuguese name Alvarinho) and blends, perhaps most famously in the refreshing and slightly fizzy blends of Vinho Verde.

Albariño in Spanish Vineyards

Wine Grapes, a terrific reference book by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouillamoz, describes Albariño as “moderately vigorous, robust and fertile. Mid budding, early to mid ripening. Small bunches of medium-sized, relatively thick skinned berries. Susceptible to downy and powdery mildews and especially to mites. Best suited to dry soils.”

Despite the common notion that Spain is hot and arid, and while this is true in the large central mesa, the north of Spain is wet and green — it looks like Irish countryside, not a desert. Actually, there is a significant Celtic population there, as northern Spain was one of the places the Celts moved to during their diaspora — bagpipes are not uncommon! Some parts feel like you’ve stepped into the middle ages: Green hillsides, wood-smoke in the air, small, rustic stone houses, old stone bridges, and tiny home gardens.

Viticulture in all of Galicia, but especially near the coast, is extremely difficult. Here temperatures are moderate and rainfall is high. Approaching harvest, daytime temperatures are usually in the 80s to low 90s °F (high 20s to low 30s °C), and nighttime temperatures are usually only 10–15 °F (5–7 °C) lower. This is a tiny diurnal shift (change in temperature from day to night), which along with the constantly high humidity and rainfall, means that downy mildew has an ideal climate 24 hours a day for much of the growing season, and there is tremendous disease pressure in the region. Powdery mildew is present, but is not as much of a problem in this region.

As a result of this disease pressure, organic viticulture in Rias Baixas was thought impossible until the last ten or so years, although a few forward looking, responsible producers have now succeeded in implementing organics. Organic viticulture in such a climate requires an unbelievable degree of dedication and precision, as well as creativity and tractor passes. Organics in other, drier parts of the world are significantly easier.

It’s speculative, but in my opinion, the small diurnal shift means shorter hang times (as acidity comes into balance at lower Brix), which I think encourage more “mineral”/citric/floral/higher toned and austere wines. In areas with cooler nights, I believe grapes are on the vine longer, with more time for these high-toned aromas to convert to fruitier ones.

Albariño is traditionally grown on pergolas, which are in the form of a table with granite legs stretching 6+ feet (~2 m) from the ground. The trunks of vines are trained up these legs, their cordons and shoots above creating the table top. This form of vine training allows for exceptional airflow and helps deter disease — it also happens to be quite beautiful. 

Historically, Galicia and much of northern Spain had a strong home winemaking tradition, and even today the vast majority of plots in Rias Baixas are tiny backyard plots, usually smaller than an acre. Most commercial wineries today need to buy grapes from a multitude of growers to create their wines, which rarely carry designation beyond Rias Baixas, or their sub-region. In the past, wine was designated by the village the grapes came from — going into bars, you would ask for a glass of Cambados or Meaño (villages in Salnés). Each village (which are usually no more than a mile or so apart,) imparting a different character to its wines, based on subtle soil differences and ocean proximity.

Vineyards are commonly planted in extreme proximity to the ocean, sometimes within 20 feet (6 m) of the water. Ocean mist is constantly falling on vines, which may account for their intense salinity. Another theory I’ve heard from revered winegrower Eulogio Pomares of Zarate and Fento (full disclosure, I import the latter brand), is that the soils have been saturated with salt water for eons, and the salt content of the soil is picked up by the roots. This is a controversial perspective, as vines are not thought to uptake salt (or anything but water and the macro and micro nutrients they need to grow) from soil, however, Eulogio is one of the geniuses of Galician wine, so it is a perspective not to be ignored.

The soil in Rias Baixas, and many parts of Galicia, are decomposed granite sand — which is important for drainage in this rainy region.

Albariño in the States

In the United States, Albariño is increasing in popularity, not only as an import from Spain, but for our own vineyards and wineries. Acreage and awareness are increasing. I recently heard there were 250 acres in California, and that Gallo had just planted an additional 250 acres for themselves. It is grown, at the very least, in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Virginia, Maryland, and New York, and likely many more states. 

In California there are plantings in numerous regions (such as Edna Valley, Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles, Napa, and Clarksburg). The climate in California — even in the most coastal growing regions — is significantly different from Galicia. Low rainfall, less humidity, big diurnal shifts. As a result, the wines are strikingly different from their Galician counterparts, often retaining great acidity (owing to the cool nights from the large diurnal shift), but generally more fruit-driven and less “mineral”/saline. Cooler sites can make fresh and elegant wines, more inland ones with exuberant fruit and some weight. In the warmest sites, it can become a bit clunky and disjointed. In California I’ve only seen it planted to vertical shoot positioned trellising, never pergolas (generally speaking, trellis differences are more important for practical reasons owing to site, rather than needs of the variety).

In a climate more akin to Galicia’s, Jason Burrus of Burrus Wine Consulting has worked with Albariño for many years in northern Virginia and says it “is one of the easier vinifera varieties to grow in Virginia, mainly due to the fact that it ripens early. In the mid-Atlantic region, the biggest viticultural challenge is the battle between achieving ripeness before the onset of rot during veraison. Ripeness in Albariño in northern Virginia occurs between the last week of August and the second week of September, before rot pressure becomes too great. The other viticultural factor is the open and loose clusters are ideal for withstanding the constant heat, humidity, and fungal disease pressure we face.”

Jason notes that in northern Virginia and Maryland, yields can be very low, around two tons per acre, which frustrates some growers, however he adds that yields for any grape rarely exceed 4 tons per acre there, and they would be higher in central Virginia. In California I’ve seen yields around 5–6 tons per acre, which folks usually dial back. In Spain it is also a good producer.

Interestingly, Albariño (in part for its acid) is one of a handful of grapes that Bordeaux is considering approving for use under some Bordeaux classifications. For those interested in growing Albariño at home, it’s increasingly available at grape nurseries, and there are two clones available from Foundation Plant Services (FPS) at UC-Davis.

Making Albariño Wines

If aiming to make a classically styled Albariño, ideal harvest chemistry would be around 20–21.5 °Brix, 3.0–3.1 pH, and a titratable acidity (TA) between 7–10 g/L. To emphasize fruit aromas, lower acid, or increase weight, leave the grapes on the vine longer, of course. 

Albariño is a pulpy grape; it doesn’t readily give up the juice it contains during pressing, as Sauvignon Blanc does, for example. That being the case, a major consideration in Albariño production is what strategy to employ to get a reasonable yield. There are three primary options, each with different stylistic results:

Cold maceration for up to three days will allow enzymes present in the grapes to break down cell walls, which will make the grapes’ aroma and juice easier to extract.

Cold maceration: Many producers crush the grapes and allow them to macerate on the skins for 24 to 72 hours, less if the fruit comes in with rot or disease. Enzymes present in the grapes will slowly break down cell walls and allow more of the juice to press out easily. The maceration will also liberate a higher percentage of the aromatic precursor compounds present in the grapes, as these are most concentrated in and near the grape’s skin. Maceration can be done by foot treading whole clusters prior to macerating and pressing, or by crushing and destemming fruit allowing it to macerate, and then pressing. Stem tannin extraction will likely be minimal, as there is no alcohol present to facilitate tannin extraction, but, as a hedge, you can allow the must to oxidize prior to fermentation, which should precipitate out a portion of phenolic compounds.

Enzymes: You can mimic a cold maceration’s juice and aroma liberating effects using commercial enzymes. The process will happen faster adding enzymes than without. That said, I discourage the use of additives when unnecessary. As fun as it is to tinker with products and ingredients, I believe it should be every winemaker’s goal to minimize and eventually eliminate additive use as understanding and abilities develop. In most cases, although they are great while we’re first learning, I feel enzyme and additive use is a shortcut or substitute for precision and craftsmanship. Also, I prefer to consume purer food products with minimal ingredients. If you have fairly healthy fruit and do a good job sanitizing, I would usually say enzymes are unnecessary. That said, there are two circumstances where I would encourage enzymes over a normal maceration: If you have diseased fruit (time spent macerating could cause problems down the line with fermentation or wine character), or you have warm fruit and do not have a way to cool it down before macerating. Cold fruit is preferred for cold macerations for two reasons. First, cold temperatures inhibit microbes, which can cause problem ferments and flawed wine character. Second, fermentation will start if a must isn’t cold, and if aiming for a classically styled wine, you’ll want to avoid fermentation on the skins. Although skin-fermented whites are in fashion these days, a day or more fermenting on the skins can notably change the character of certain wines.

Hard pressing: Finally, you can press the grapes hard — yet slowly! — if you have a press capable of doing so. The goal here, relative to what is above, would be to obtain a solid yield, while avoiding both the increased aromatic intensity and increase of pH from potassium that would come from macerating. More aromatic precursor compounds and potassium (which raises pH relative to total acidity) reside in the layer of the grape closest to the skin. On commercial machines, this is known as a Champagne or Cremant cycle. It slowly, but very completely, presses out the grapes (over a period of 2–3 hours). You can taste (or test) and toward the end, you will notice a decrease in acidity — if aiming to minimize pH increase, you can stop pressing here, or separate different portions of the pressings to decide about blending later. Musts obtained this way (by separating out the last of what comes out of the press) will also have less oxidizable compounds present versus macerating or using enzymes.

Macerating will lead to a fruitier and fuller wine with a relatively higher pH, hard pressing and dumping the final (usually small) portion of the must will lead to a fresher, more “mineral”/stony wine with a lower pH. Recently, winemakers seeking to display terroir have opted not to macerate, feeling that encouraging overt fruitiness eclipses terroir expression.

Jason Burrus makes two styles of Albariño, one in a slightly fizzy Vinho Verde style and the other is a table wine. The Vinho Verde he picks around 21–22 °Brix and ~3.3 pH. The slight fizz is retained from alcoholic fermentation (it is not from a secondary fermentation) by keeping the wine cold and bottling under screwcap.

For his table Albariño, Jason picks at around 23 °Brix with a pH of 3.4–3.6, which he whole cluster presses and puts through a cool stainless steel fermentation, “maybe with a small percentage of oak barrels for fermentation.” The wine does not go through a malolactic fermentation (MLF), and is bottled in early spring the following vintage.

For my own wine, I used to do a short maceration, but now do a slow/hard whole cluster pressing, settle overnight, then rack to fermenters. I’m experimenting with a small portion of neutral oak for fermentation this year as well. I let the wine settle well after fermentation before racking off the lees, as to leave lees behind — both as I wanted to avoid additional weight from autolysis, and as I did spontaneous fermentations for the first time in 2019 and lees can harbor spoilage bacteria, so wanted to minimize the potential for problems down the line. I added SO2 to 0.8 mg/L (ppm) molecular after primary fermentation to block malolactic. I usually bottle around seven or more months after harvest, as I prefer esters to dissipate before I sell my wines, which takes about a year, so I’m in no rush to bottle. Minimum dose fining with pharmaceutical-grade bentonite and, as I did not do a MLF, I sterile filtered.

Malolactic fermentation is rare with Albariño, as it’s prized for its freshness and youthful fruit, which malo reduces; however, there are a handful of magnificent Spanish bottlings that do see partial or complete malolactic fermentation.

To encourage fruitiness, as with any white grape, discourage must oxidation prior to the start of fermentation and keep your fermentation cool (55–65 °F/13–18 °C) to retain fermentation esters and other aroma compounds. You can also use yeasts or enzymes that will liberate more aromatics. To discourage overt fruitiness, oxidize your must prior to fermentation, and ferment warmer, from 65 to 70s °F (18–22 °C).

Albariño is a great grape, capable of being made in a variety of styles, from a variety of regions. If you’re a seafood lover, it’ll never let you down with shellfish and bright, seafood dishes (fried or baked fish, ceviche, fish tacos, and so on), and it has enough acidity to work well with many heartier and fatty dishes. It’s definitely a grape worth familiarizing yourself with, and perhaps trying your hand at growing or making wine from at home.