Wines From Spain: Something Old, Something New

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Much debate about wine today (and yes, you rather have to be obsessed with wine to follow the discourse) centers on the modern vs. the traditional. Modernization is said to be the enemy of traditional wine, creating a global sameness that strips variety and interest from our daily tipple.

But sometimes modernization can be the savior of the traditional. Consider Spanish white wines, for instance. After the phylloxera root louse decimated Europe's vineyards in the late 1800s, most white-grape-bearing vineyards in northern and northwestern Spain were replanted with phylloxera- resistant hybrid varieties or the high-yielding palomino, which does wonders when fortified in sherry but renders an insipid table wine.

It's easy to understand why: With their livelihoods ruined, growers naturally opted for more reliable grape varieties. When Spain's wine renaissance took hold in the 1970s and '80s, vintners began planting the traditional vines again and making their wines using modern techniques such as temperature control and fermentation in stainless-steel tanks. Everything old was new again.

That's why white wines such as albariño, godello and verdejo are increasingly popular today as alternatives to the ubiquitous chardonnay. These three grape varieties are the headliners of Spanish whites, leading a list that includes such obscure grapes as viura, xarello and hondaribbi zuri (the main grape of a Basque wine called Txakoli). Anyone trying to cross off names from a list of grape varieties tasted should spend time savoring Spanish white wines.

Albariño holds pride of place among Spanish whites. It hails from Rias Baixas in Galicia, in the country's northwestern corner, centered on the city of Santiago de Compostela. Albariño's flavors have been compared to those of Riesling and Viognier, with an emphasis on apricot and peach flavors and bracing acidity plus generous alcohol levels (around 13 percent) that give it rich body. One fanciful story (discredited by DNA testing) would have us believe albariño is indeed Riesling, brought to Spain by German pilgrims. Albariño's popularity has led to its migration to the United States; two D.C. area wineries, Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia and Black Ankle Vineyards in Maryland, make excellent versions.

"In albariños, you can find aromas of apricots, white flowers, sea salt, oyster shells, tropical fruits and minerals," said Aurelio Cabestrero, former sommelier at Taberna del Alabardero and Marcel's in Washington. "They pair well with oysters, sushi, all kinds of seafood and even taste good by themselves." He is the region's leading importer of his native country's wines under his Grapes of Spain label.

Godello is another indigenous grape from Galicia, though it has not become as fashionable as albariño. The best godello wines hail from Valdeorras, in the eastern part of Galicia, which is more inland than Rias Baixas and protected from the maritime influences by mountain ranges. Aromatic and mineral, godello gives wines of impressive structure and finesse. Cabestrero finds "jasmine and honeysuckle, with more weight than a typical albariño."

While albariño and godello strive for aristocracy among Spanish white grapes, verdejo celebrates the commoner. Verdejo is the main white grape of the Rueda region in northwestern Spain, where it produces enticing wines reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with its grassiness and fresh herbal flavors. A good verdejo smells like Colonial Williamsburg on a cool spring evening after a cleansing rain, with boxwood and ivy breathing heavily in the musky night air. Rueda wines often blend verdejo with viura, another Spanish white grape that is the mainstay of white Rioja. Keswick Vineyards, near Charlottesville, makes an excellent verdejo.

Most Spanish white wines on our shelves today are made in the modern style, with temperature- controlled fermentation and other techniques designed to preserve acidity and freshness. But occasionally we can still find wines in a more traditional, oxidative style, especially from Rioja, a region that is reaching for a balance between the modern and traditional styles with its more famous red wines.

Two wines topping today's recommendations illustrate the contrast of modern and traditional styles. The Lagar de Cervera Albariño 2007 is fresh and vibrant, fermented in temperature- controlled stainless-steel tanks to preserve its freshness and acidity. It shows lime, apricot and peach flavors -- an orchard in a glass -- followed by a long and complex finish. The Medrano Irazu 2005 white Rioja, made entirely with viura, is traditionally styled. It is fermented in oak barrels with a daily stirring of the lees to give it complexity and body, enhanced by extended bottle aging. This wine shows oxidation; it could easily seem over the hill to drinkers accustomed to the modern, stainless-steel style of white wines, yet it is vibrant and lively in the glass. Its flavors are more earthy and mineral than fruity.

Ironically, Medrano Irazu is not an old winery; it was founded in 1985. Its white Rioja is another example of the modern and traditional blurring in Spain.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through or

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