All white now

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am


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In Europe it is rare for a grape variety to expose itself. Most Europeans favour location, location, location on their labels, not grape varieties. The hip Spanish producers of the Rias Baixas region, however, realised the pronunciation of the district's name might trip up their marketing efforts, so they cannily opted to label their wine by its variety, albarino. Though albarino (ahl-bah-reen-yo) might twist a few tongues in Asia, it is easily pronounced by cultures familiar with Latin-based languages.

Spain is highly admired for its sensual red wines, but its whites are often decried as oxidised, sloppily made and unfashionable. About a decade ago, albarino burst back onto the catwalk and became Spain's high-fashion white wine. Lightly perfumed with grapefruit, lemon peel and white peach aromas, albarino is reminiscent of viognier and gewurztraminer, but in a much sexier body. The secret to albarino's success is its stiletto acidity, which gives the wine a slim silhouette.

No one knows how albarino came into existence. Some producers believe Cistercian monks imported the variety in the 12th century. Others suggest Germans carried cuttings with them on pilgrimages to the region's famed cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Because 'alba'' means white and 'rino' refers to the Rhine, the albarino name suggests an affiliation to riesling, a white variety that excels along the slopes of the lengthy river. Chalk this idea up to rural legend, however, as albarino was growing in Spain in the 12th century, long before riesling was recorded along the banks of the Rhine in in the 15th century.

The lush green hills of Rias Baixas, at the westernmost point of Spain, are not the romanticised arid lands of Don Quixote. Wet, windy and cool, albarino's homeland would seem more akin to Ireland than Spain if it weren't for the Moorish architectural flourishes and red-tiled rooftops.

Despite the damp, albarino survives partly due to its thick skin, which protects it from mould and rot. Because grape flavour is primarily derived from skin, albarino's outerwear enhances its aromatic intensity. The grape bunches are loosely knit, which also helps prevent mildew. Still, mould is always a threat, so vines in this region are mostly trained onto elevated trellis-like systems called parras, to increase air circulation.

Albarino is so well matched with seafood that it has been nicknamed 'wine of the sea', which is not surprising as many of its vineyards are planted in view of the Atlantic Ocean. Rias refers to the coastal fjord-like inlets that jut in from the sea and the southern clusters of these inlets are known as baixas, or lower inlets.

Good quality albarino is available from Abrate & Sons (tel: 2541 7234), Jebsen Fine Wines (tel: 2923 8777) and Fine Vintage (tel: 2896 6108), and is on lists at the Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Spoon at the InterContinental and Cinecitta, among others.