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All about Albariño (told by a Galician sommelier)

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

For many the "Prima Donna" of Galician viticulture, this variety is destined to shape some of the greatest classical cuvées of the future.

Where does Albariño come from?

To understand what Albariño is, we have to delve into the western corner of the Iberian peninsula. A green and humid area, daughter of the Atlantic, that is postulated as Albariño's motherland.

Due to the development of the St. James' Trail the hypothesis that Albariño was a distant relative or a direct descendant of Riesling gained followers. In fact, etymologically Albariño means the white wine (alba) from the Rhine (riño). For years we were convinced that the grape was brought by the Cistercian or Cluny monks either from France or Germany.

Today we know that this is not the case. Not so long ago, carbon-14 analysis revealed that the first seeds of Albariño date back somewhere between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD, meaning that the predecessor of Albariño was already present in Roman Galicia, being Albariño possibly the result of its hybridization with other local wild native varieties.

The Salnés Valley (one of Rías Baixas' sub-regions) is the most historical area for the production of Albariño. The name "Salnés" comes from the fact that El Grove was an island in Roman times where salt mines were exploited. When the sea level dropped and El Grove became a peninsula, many places that were under the Atlantic are now vineyards growing in granite soils bathed in salt. The Armenteira Monastery is located in this region, an enclave of great importance for Albariño as it is thought that its monks surely gave a push to its cultivation. Albariño was grown exclusively in the monasteries until the 19th century when, after the Mendizábal's confiscation, religious orders lost their power and the landowners behind the local "pazos" (the Galician equivalent to a French château) started to plant it too because it was considered a grape of "status and distinction" reserved for special occasions.

Thus, Albariño is indigenous and, as such, it has been produced in the area since ancient times. However, we cannot yet confirm if Salnés is its birthplace or if it originated somewhere pretty close by as Albariño not only grows in Rías Baixas but it also does it in Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra, Barbanza, Vinho Verde... The map below showcases the old Kingdom of Galicia and, as you can see, all the regions mentioned before are encased within the same boundaries, for which it's logical to think that we shared not only a political patrimony but viticultural too.

Before the 80s

Given its today's popularity, the following statement might sound a bit of a surprise to many but Albariño was traditionally not the majority grape in this area that was dominated mainly by red varieties like Espadeiro or Caíño Tinto. Albariño was locally consumed and poorly exported. It was produced to a limited extent by land owners, priests, well-to-do peasants, and people who had a more balanced diet. It was the greater esteem for this white wine that led to a series of revolutions in the Salnés region that increasingly led to a bigger production of this grape.

Albariño was a very scarce and expensive commodity which is why it served as a currency of exchange between the upper class from Spain and the Galician vinegrowers, as it cost 2 or 3 times more than the local thin and acidic red wines. We need to understand that after the Spanish Civil War, society wasn't experiencing a flamboyant economic moment. On the contrary, people were subsisting as they best could. Everyone in the area was interested in getting into business by replanting their vineyards with Albariño to the detriment of local reds. The rest is history, as this varietal now represents 96% (according to the DO) of the total vineyard plantation in Rías Baixas.

The 80s

Galicia was an agricultural and livestock society, wine was produced mainly for self-consumption since it was an important part of the diet. Albariño was cultivated, therefore, as a form of sustenance in very small plots of land (smallholding was and still is dominant here). If there was a surplus, it was sold in barrels to the local merchants and restaurants, to later be served straight from ceramic jars into the traditional cuncas (ceramic cups). Bottled trade was virtually non-existent.

When the 80s arrived, they brought an entrepreneurial mentality. Local vinegrowers realized that to make the industry of Albariño profitable, what they really needed was not so much to incorporate technology as to learn the technique, that is, to acquire the technical knowledge that would lead them to produce good wines. The only problem with this is that the generation behind those first wines was not a traveling one and instead of going out to visit what was done in the great classical regions, the neighbors copied each other, and they even shared the same oenologist in some cases (standardizing the industry).

The total production during DO Rias Baixas' first vintage (1988) was approximately 500,000 bottles, very little compared to what it is nowadays (37,319,804 DO seals were distributed in 2022). This commercial success was led by the massive plantation of this grape variety all around the Salnés Valley, even in soils that have never been planted with vineyards, soils that were more fertile and suitable for other crops like corn, potatoes, or cereals. As a direct consequence of that, very few old vineyards of Albariño remain in the area.

This small industrialization of minifundia led to massive production and the oenological and biotechnological processes started to be imposed on terroir. Winemakers were aiming to produce a commercial wine because what was of true interest was to let the world get familiar with Albariño and understand how this variety was.

The 2010s

It was in this decade when we began to see the first generational replacement of winemakers taking place. This second generation has been concerned with studying and training not only at home but abroad, traveling and tasting some of the greatest terroir-driven wines. When they returned home to take over the reins of their family wineries, since they already mastered the technique, they allowed themselves to be much more intuitive in search of the intrinsic purity, not of the variety, but of the terroir.

Names like Eulogio Pomares (Zárate), Rodri Méndez (Forjas del Salnés), Xurxo Alba (Albamar), Chicho Moldes (Fulcro), Pedro Méndez, Do Ferreiro, Nanclares y Prieto, Eido da Salgosa, Vimbio, Tricó, Bodegas Carballal, Iria Otero, Lagar de Pintos, José Crusat (Adega Entre Ríos, in Barbanza), Mixtura, Atrium Vitis (in Ribeira Sacra), Anónimas Wines, Begoña Troncoso, Constantina Sotelo, Adega Sergio Álvarez, Cabana das Bolboretas, Torgo, Marcial Dorado, Márcio Lopes, Fernando Paiva (Quinta da Palmirinha), & Luís Seabra, among others represent that new wave of change not only in Rías Baixas but in other Galician regions and Portugal too.

Albariño's DNA

Talking Albariño is talking about a variety that has a thick skin that generates abundant bloom (a white mantle with a powdery texture that covers the skin of the grape). It is a translucent wax that works as a natural protector for the fruit since it prevents insects from easily attacking the fruit, it is a natural sunscreen, and, in addition, in a region as humid and rainy as Galicia it works as a waterproof cloak.

Albariño shares a lot of chromosomes with Caiño Tinto, therefore, its chemical profile results in a high phenolic character (which gives it an astringency and bitterness that translates into varietal identity). It is also a glyceric variety (giving smoothness, volume, a slight sweetness, and a silky mouthfeel to the final wines).

It is a variety with a high natural acid backbone (between 7.2 g/L and 14.3 g/L), considered a defect in old times, now we know that this constitutes the perdurability of the variety in time, endowing the wines with great longevity. The hard granite rock where the vines grow also helps the wine to acquire the capacity to live in time for 10 to 25 years.

Its resistance to fungic diseases is not great, so the traditional system of conducting the vine in "emparrado or pergola" (see pictures below) is the most appropriate because it allows the flow of oceanic breezes that help reduce fungal pressure.

Being a fairly productive variety (it is super vigorous) means that intensive work is required in the vineyard to produce quality. The yields allowed by the DO are stipulated at 12 thousand kilos per hectare, however, the expressiveness in the wines is achieved when we lower those yields below 9.5 thousand kilos per hectare.

Its vegetative cycle is quite long, which favors the terpenic nature of the variety. This means that it is a variety endowed with great expressiveness. Watch out! I'm talking about expressiveness, not exuberance, it's not the same. Expressiveness is understood as its aromatic breadth since it encompasses a large number of aromatic families. With this last concept in mind, there are two production philosophies when making an Albariño:

1) The one that takes the path of aromatic exuberance exploiting Albariño's thiolic profile. There is only one problem, Albariño is not a thiolic grape. Thiols are volatile sulfur compounds that are responsible for most of the tropical fruit aromas (papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, mango... you name it). This profile was (and still is) highly demanded by the national market, which is why thiols became very present in Galician Albariños causing them to lose their typicity and to homogenize their nature. How do you get that thiolic nature out? Very simply, winemakers depend on the use of artificial yeasts capable of creating sulfur compounds during fermentation (they increase if fermented at low temperatures). Albariño has never smelled of a tropical fruit salad! If you come across an exponent like this, bear in mind that something has happened there.

2) The path of austerity, that is, the one that seeks to respect the natural terpene profile of the variety, only in this way will it be possible to make wines that speak of terroir. Terpenes are found in the skins of grapes, so cold macerations are important. This wide aromatic palette will allow us to find things like apples, mirabelle plums, citrus peel, bergamot, fresh quinces, apricot skin, peaches, white stone fruits, blossoming white flowers, chamomile, hay, honeysuckle, flint, salinity, seaweed, and oyster shells.

Creating the great classic cuvées of the future Today, we are realizing that we have been drinking Albariño far too early, and although young Albariños are extraordinary we are missing out on many nuances that are only appreciated over time. That is why we have spent almost two decades with a mentality oriented towards creating cuvées designed to evolve. Only in this way will Albariño be able to rub shoulders with the finest white wines of the world.

It's ironic to see how the industrialization of winemaking in Rias Baixas translated into the usage of stainless steel to produce wine. Traditionally, Albariño was pressed in granite presses and made in chestnut barrels. Today, there are a few winemakers who are experimenting again with this type of wood and other vessels such as cement, granite, clay, and oak barrels.

Looking positively into the future, the trend begins to move towards the production of Albariños with longer aging on its fine lees, thus crafting wines suitable for aging either using a reductive environment (aging in stainless steel) or an oxidative one (aging in a porous vessel). This change of mentality began to take place when bottles of old vintages of Albariños that were not thought to age over time began to be uncorked, witnessing pleasantly surprised how many of those wines withstood the test of time, becoming something extraordinary. An evolutive Albariño develops nuances such as quince jelly, dried stone fruits, honeycomb, dry nuts, & crème brûlée.

The Albariño of yesteryear began to be consumed in July / August. As we saw at the beginning, those rural vinegrowers who made wine for their own consumption used to make Albariño in barrels (traditionally chestnut) without any type of temperature control. Once fermentation was finished, the variety's high natural acidity was considered negative so the wine was left to "rest" in the barrel until summer because, right then, the wine was much more drinkable. They trusted their taste because they didn't have the technical knowledge to understand that malolactic fermentation kicked in when temperatures started to get hotter. Today, that is one of the big questions, malolactic, yes or no?

I will answer this in a very Galician way: It depends.

It should not be forgotten that the energy of each of the vignerons and the way they translate everything that surrounds them into the liquid universe is an important part of terroir, so Malolactic will depend very much on the taste of each of the winemakers.

If we had to give a categorical answer, generally speaking, it is customary to let the wine undertake malolactic when a cuvée thought to last over time is crafted because, after the fourth or fifth year, these wines are pure complexity. Early-drinking wines normally do not go through malolactic because they leave very yogurty nuances. However, there are producers who like to respect that part of the tradition and make wines for more immediate consumption in this way.

Where should we move forward?

As you can see, Albariño is a far more complex reality than the one portrayed in some of the wine books around. If we want this varietal to be at the top league local winemakers should start focusing all their energies on promoting the sub-regions, the villages, and the single vineyards; but this is already a topic of conversation for another post.

Director at Fìon, Edinburgh


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