I can still remember how strikingly delicious my first taste of Albariño was, and how embarrassed I was in the wake of the experience.
It happened on the last night of my first trip to Spain, in December of 1997, in a restaurant in Madrid. My friends and I were waiting for a companion who was late in showing up, and as time dragged on, an impatient member of our party suggested that we order a bottle of wine. The issue of what to order was dispatched immediately when two people at the table called--simultaneously--for an Albariño. Not knowing what that was, and not wanting to expose myself as a doofus, I just sat there silently as a bottle of 1996 Morgadio from Rias Baixas was presented and then poured.
The wine showed a truly lovely floral aroma, but a subtle one, much more akin to Riesling than, say, Muscat or Gewurztraminer. On the palate, the wine was generously substantial, with medium body and succulent, deep flavors recalling fresh peaches and baked apples. These flavors tailed off slowly and symmetrically, as with all truly excellent wines, and finished with a bright, zesty zing of acidity. The acidity seemed perfectly natural and perfectly integrated with the fruit, and the wine as a whole was complex yet coherent, and quite stunningly delicious.
At first, I said nothing to anyone, on account of feeling like an idiot or an impostor. How could I possibly expect anyone to take me seriously as a wine writer when there was a varietal wine out in the world that was this spectacular that I had never even heard of? I had only been writing about wine for four and a half years at that point, but, by dint of ridiculously good luck, had been writing for most of that as wine columnist for The Washington Post. And when tasting that wine, being ignorant of Albariño seemed as mortifying as, say, Bob Woodward being unaware of one of the three branches of government.
My shame diminished a bit in the wake of that trip when I learned a little more about Albariño. A literature search showed that only a few American writers had ever written anything about the grape or the resulting wine at that point, and very few bottlings were available in the USA. Moreover, D.O. (or appellation) status for Rias Biaxas had only been granted for less than a decade, and the Albariño variety had been nearly extinct not long before that. My initial experience was also partly a function of the fact that my epiphany wine came from 1996, an extraordinary vintage producing wines that have not since been equaled, in my opinion.
Nevertheless, in the years since that first sniff and sip in Madrid, my faith has never flagged regarding Albariño's potential greatness. Since 'greatness' is a word that isn't used by wine writers nearly as sparingly as it should be, I should be clear about what I mean: In my view, Albariño is not only Spain's best white grape, but a variety that can someday stand with Riesling and Chardonnay at the very top of the white wine pecking order.
Attempting to assess Albariño's full potential requires a bit of daring. One needs to crawl out on a limb and extrapolate from a thin track record, since Albariño has been made for a relatively short span with fully modern methods, and mostly in just one place on the globe. But it seems clear to me already that it is a more noble variety than some very famous grapes like Gewurztraminer, Semillon or Viognier. Moreover, I think it is at least the equal of some grapes that I adore unreservedly, such as Chenin Blanc, Muscat and Grüner Veltliner. And I have a suspicion that when it is planted in a variety of soils and climates, grown very conscientiously at low yield levels, and skillfully made with a variety of techniques, Albariño will give Sauvignon Blanc a serious challenge for its place in the trinity atop the white pyramid.
Even those readers most experienced with Albariño might raise an eyebrow at my enthusiasm at this point, but you should bear with me for a moment, because I may have a piece of information about this grape and wine that you are lacking. Namely: Albariño can age. And by that I mean not only that it can hang on for a few years after being bottled, but that it can develop.
This was a second lesson about Albariño imparted to me in Madrid, in this case at a tasting earlier this year. The tasting featured a sizeable number of bottlings that were at least a couple of years old, and the results were overwhelmingly impressive. Here are abbreviated tasting notes for every wine in the tasting (in the order in which the wines were presented):
Adegas Valmiñor 'Davila' 2006: Pure and delicate notes of pear and baked apple, with a rich midpalate and a rounded feel, but still very fresh, with excellent acid integration. 91
Fillaboa 2006: Lovely floral topnote, followed by deep fruit flavors and finishing with mineral notes and an appealing streak of citrus rind bitterness. 90
Maior de Mendoza '3 Crianzas' 2006: Fine floral aromas, with nice acid integration and impressive overall freshness, though a bit short in the finish. 88
Mar de Frades 2005: Corked.
Adegas Tollodouro 'La Mirada al Sur' 2005: Weighty, with some appealing oxidative aromas and flavors that work nicely with notes of flowers and honey. Despite a bit of oxidation, this still shows an overall impression of freshness. 90
Bouza do Rei 2005: Pear and ripe apple notes with a floral topnote and very energetic acidity; light and lithe and very fresh, this actually seems still to be uncoiling. 91
Pazo de San Mauro 'Sanamaro' 2005: Seems fully evolved, with color of straw with light gold highlights; slightly oxidized but still quite fresh. Especially complex aromatically, with notes of flowers, honey and anise seed. Rich, but balanced by especially energetic acidity. 92
Lusco 'Pazo Piñeiro' 2005: Smokey oak aroma is distracting and overly obtrusive, and wood spice dries the finish. The core fruit is still young, and there's lots of fresh acidity, but the oak seems clearly overdone. 87
Granbazán 'Ámbar' 2005: Very impressive, with aromas and flavors that are remarkably expressive aromas and flavors that seem near their developmental apogee; vivid flavors or tart apples with a lime edge and light mineral accents. Delicate, but surprisingly persistent in its finish. 92
Adegas Galegas 'Veigadares' 2005: Golden color is presumably traceable to 6 months of ageing in French and American oak, with notable oxidation that is right on the edge of excessive but not over the line. Hints of caramel and spices as well as a bit of bitterness in the finish make this quite interesting. 88
Adega dos Eidos 'Contraaparede' 2004: This spent 44 months in tank on its lees, and after a hint of sulfur blows off, it shows remarkable crisp freshness. The floral aromas are quite prominent, and medium body is thoroughly enlivened by zesty acidity. 92
Adega da Serra 'Val do Castello' 2004: Vivid and incredibly fresh, yet rounded and very deep in flavor. It starts with aromas of flowers, honey and verbena, and then shows flavor notes of ripe apples and white melon, along with a little lime acidity on the fringes. Very penetrating and long. 93
Adegas d'Altamira 'Selección' 2004: Still very young looking with quite pale color. Delicate notes of lavender, hone and white melon are very pleasant and fresh. 89
Martin Codax 'Gallaecia' Vendemia Tardia 2004: A late harvested wine with a notably golden hue and expressive notes of honey, tea and baked apples and are lifted and enlivened by lots of fresh acidity. 91
Bodegas del Palacio de Fefiñanes 'III Año' 2002: Quite rich and satisfying, but lacking in lift and losing its edge and now seeming top-heavy. 84
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This tasting proved--at least to my satisfaction--that Albariño doesn't just fade over time, but can develop interesting nuances and a more complex character as it ages.
I don't want to make too much of this, but neither do I want to make less of this factor than its importance warrants. On one hand, a white grape variety like Sauvignon Blanc can certainly be considered great even if the wines that it produces are usually only enjoyable when quite young. But on the other hand, it is an important advantage if a grape can make wines that are enjoyable in their youth but also delicious in a different way after ageing. Chardonnay and Riesling have this capacity, and I think it belongs among the most important considerations when explaining their lofty stature.
Albariño's ability to develop over time provides us with yet another reason to watch closely as vintners in Rias Baixas and the wider world strive to attain its full potential. Within the winemaking community in Galicia, there is a widespread willingness to acknowledge that Albariño is not yet as good as it can be, as some basic questions about how best to train the vines and vinify the fruit remain a long way from being answered definitively. And though Galicia may ultimately turn out to be the world's best place to grow this grape, that won't be known until other places have discovered what they can achieve with it. At least a dozen regions have gotten a start, and some early results are very encouraging.
We have a lot to learn about how and where Albariño will gain its optimal expression, but it is already clear to me that it can still get much better than it is now. And given how good it is already, that is pretty damned exciting.