Drinking Albariño / Alvarinho from the Iberian Peninsula

Alvarinho grape vines in Vinho Verde
Alvarinho vines in Vinho Verde, Portugal

Albariño is one of my all-time favourite white grape varieties. As some folks will know, I’m on the Riesling side of white wine, so anything with great acidity and vividity of citrus is a winner when it’s done well.

Generally the wines are textually interesting as well, displaying varying levels of viscosity and, especially when the vines are near the Atlantic, a saline, almost salty character.

Two of the wines I tasted over the weekend showed the diversity of this wonderful grape. The first, an Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain, showcasing its fruity, vibrant nature; the second, an Alvarinho from Vinho Verde from one of my favourite producers, showed complexity and richness.

While Spain and Portugal are the giants for quality Albariño (Alvarinho in Portugal), the grape is starting to enjoy success elsewhere in regions such as the Americas, especially South American producers in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where it works well thanks to proximity to the sea or because it’s planted on high altitude vineyards.

Albariño in Rias Baixas, Spain

One key factor for great Albariño wines is a cool climate. DO Rias Baixas is the Spanish wine-growing region on the north-west Atlantic, comprising of sub regions such as Val do Salnés and O Rosal that border the Atlantic, Condado do Tea on the River Tea tributary off River Miño that lines the border of Spain and Portugal, Soutomaior in the hills at the head of the Rías de Vigo, and Ribeira do Ulla on the northerly River Ulla.

Surrounded by rivers and the Atlantic, Albariño thrives here, developing intensely fruit forward styles while preserving its trademark acidity and freshness. 99% of wine grown under the DO Rias Baixas is white, and 96% of that is Albariño.

Most winemakers here will use stainless steel tanks for fermentation and release the wines young and fresh. However, some producers like Xose Lois Sebio are choosing to barrel-ferment and mature Albariño, leading to some of Spain’s most interesting and characterful full-bodied white wines. Again, it’s another testament to the versatility of this fine variety.

Galician coastline, Rias Baixas, Spain

Alvarinho in Vinho Verde, Portugal

While Rias Baixas is producing some of the finest Albariño wines in the world, it’s neighbouring region in Portugal, Vinho Verde (meaning “green wine” and reflecting the light, fresh style of its whites), is arguably the most famous – and often rightly credited for bringing the grape variety to a wide array of drinkers in the UK.

Alvarinho in Portugal has its home in the historic Minho province in the far north of the country. Since 1908, this area has been part of the larger Vinho Verde PDO, and the Minho region was dissolved in favour of Vinho Verde in 1976. ‘Vinho Verde’ can be made from a wide variety of grapes, and is most popularly a blend of some Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Batoca, Loureiro, and/or Trajadura, although more grapes are permitted.

However, wines labelled as Vinho Alvarinho must be 100% varietal Alvarinho and come from a small designated subregion of Monção and Melgaço. These wines often reflect a tropical, more intense style of Alvarinho with higher alcohol of 11.5% abv or more.

Zestier, lighter Alvarinho wines are sometimes lightly carbonated to create a spritz in the wine and add freshness. This slight effervescence comes from historic Vinho Verde production when malolactic fermentation spontaneously occurred in bottle, creating spritz and sediment in the wine. However, to avoid the sediment in modern winemaking, this ‘fault’ has been fixed and replaced with delicate use of carbonation.

More premium Alvarinho wines, however, will forego this completely in favour of texture, fruit ripeness and freshness. Despite this, even classier, more structured Alvarinho is often made to be drunk young as the fruit is the most defining character of the wine.

Drinking examples of Albariño / Alvarinho

2019, Faustino Rivero Albariño Rias Baixas ★★☆ – Clear, pale lemon; almost water-white at the rim. Gorgeously fresh on the nose with packs of green melon, pithy lemon, lime zest, citrus oils and watercress. Zippy and bright on the palate with everything in balance. Characteristics of honeydew melon, citrus rind and cool-ferment notes of pear. Fruity on the finish. Easy to love! This wine is from Rias Baixas in Spain. Found in Sainsbury’s (£12.00), which was a pleasant surprise.

2018, Xosé Lois Sebio Albarino ‘O Con’ Rias Baixas ★★★ – Bottled with low sulphur thanks to its natural acidity, this wine is part of winemaker Sebio’s personal quest to create a range of wines with a marked identity. Very aromatic on the nose with bright lemon citrus and grapefruit leading and more subtle aromas of buttery oak and pine beneath. The palate is rich textually but mid-weighted and mid-balanced across its other characteristics with a plush, mouth-watering finish. Creamy, even a little spicy, tropical fruit is left. A real zinger and unlikely to forget it anytime soon. c £25+

2018, Reguengo de Melgaco Alvarinho Vinho Verde ★★☆ – Pale lemon with legs on the glass. Nose is full of candle wax and bright, fresh lemons. Some candied lime. The palate is very smooth, almost oily, with a mix of white peaches, lemons, olives and sweet peel. Long, textured finish, almost a little saline. Bigger than most Alvarinho I’ve tried from this area in Portugal, which is in no way a bad thing. Sells for approx. £18-£20 at time of writing.

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