Wine: Explore Spain’s whites, region by region


Wine bottles photographed on August 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 23, 2011

The grand red wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, based on the tempranillo grape, dominate our perception of Spanish wine. Garnacha from the rare, trendy and expensive wines of Priorat and the gulpable, juicy bargains from Campo de Borja come a close second. Cava gives us sparkling wines to turn everyday victories into celebrations, and of course there’s sherry, that neither-here-nor-there category that no one seems to know what to do with. (Hint: Chinese food!)

Yet Spain also has a treasure-trove of white wines that are unfortunately overshadowed by its reds. They can be a delight to explore in the summer, as they pair well with seafood and lighter dishes of the season.

If you’re pursuing the wine century club — with the goal of tasting wines made from 100 or more grape varieties — Spain is a must-stop on your world tour. Here’s a brief primer on some of the country’s delectable whites:

Galicia, in Spain’s northwest corner, disproves our romantic notions of the country’s climate. There’s no parched desert with sweaty horsemen tilting at windmills. This is lush, rainy, Atlantic-influenced territory, and the albarino grape reigns supreme.

Close to the Atlantic coast, albarino can be crisp, acidic and lean, with refreshing citrusy flavors of lime zest and lemon. Further inland, it takes on a fatter, riper quality that hints of apricots, peaches and other tree fruit. Near the Portuguese border, albarino may be blended with the exotic-sounding loureiro and treixadura grapes, to yield a richer, fleshier variation on Portugal’s refreshing summer wine, vinho verde.

Albarino’s popularity is a blessing and a curse: A lot more of it has been planted in the past 15 years, and some of the wines are uneven in quality. Some good ones are grown here in the United States, including locally. Look for albarino from Chrysalis, Willowcroft and Black Ankle, if you can find them.

Further inland, the wine areas of Valdeorras and Bierzo produce crisp whites from the godello grape. While albarino may favor apricots, godello tastes of apples and Asian pears, with an appealing minerality that makes it refreshing on its own or ideal to pair with seafood and shellfish.

If raw shellfish is on your menu, the wine to seek out might be txakolini (pronounced “choc-o-LEE-na,” like chocolate, though it’s definitely not a dessert wine). From Spain’s northern Basque region, this wine, made from the hondurrabi grape, is searingly dry and mineral; it may be fair to say its main flavor is palate-cleansing refreshment.

In central Spain, Rueda, made from the verdejo grape, should appeal to sauvignon blanc lovers with its grassiness and racy acidity. Viura, garnacha blanca (the white version of grenache), macabeo and malvasia also make appearances. When we get to white wines from Rioja, Priorat (rare) and other central or southern regions, we’ve moved into warmer climates, with sun-baked flavors. These wines, sometimes aged in new oak, tend to be richer and better suited to pair with main courses rather than with casual foods or for patio sipping.

This variety is what makes wine so exciting to explore. There’s chardonnay in Spain, of course, and some of it is good. But chardonnay is ubiquitous; albarino, godello, verdejo and other Spanish varieties are not. Why buy a Spanish wine that tastes as if it could come from anywhere when you can savor one that tastes of Spain itself?

Dave McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com; follow him on Twitter @dmwine.

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