Two weeks ago I was asked the most intelligent question ever put to me by a consumer: "What's the best wine in the world of which I'm probably unaware?" Impressed by both the humility and the practical usefulness of the question, I was pleased to be able to offer an answer with complete confidence: Albarino. No other wine in the world is even close to Albarino in combining deep obscurity and soaring greatness, and if you've never tasted one, you're soon to enjoy the best wine discovery of your year.
Albarino is a noble white grape from Galicia, located on the Atlantic coast just above Portugal in northwestern Spain. Almost all Albarino- based wines carry the appellation "Rias Baixas," Galician for "lower estuaries" or "inlets." The predominant factor for grape-growing in all of the Rias Baixas subregions is proximity to the Atlantic, which creates a climate that is distinctly breezy, moist and moderate in temperature. Average rainfall approaches 60 inches each year, requiring extraordinary viticultural efforts to ward off fungus diseases. Albarino vines are typically coaxed up six-foot-tall granite posts and then trained along steel wires to permit air circulation. Since weeds retain moisture, growers must plow almost continually, often up to 20 times a year.
Nevertheless, one taste of a fine Albarino shows that these wines are well worth the effort. In terms of texture, they offer an astonishing marriage of crisp freshness and lush creaminess, combining the zestiness of grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling with richness akin to Viognier or Chardonnay. The aromas and flavors of Albarino are wonderfully alluring and complex even when no wood is used (as is generally the case). Scents of flowers and citrus fruits predominate, often accompanied by notes of peaches and apricots. The structural properties of Albarino make it quite versatile with food, but the classic match is with seafood (for which Galicia is justly famous).
Albarino has been planted at a rapid rate during the past decade, but availability remains relatively tight. Along with high production costs, this helps explain why the wines are creeping up in price. However, the quality of every bottling recommended below justifies its price, and the top two are the best bargains I've encountered in a very long time. Always check vintage dates, as the great vibrancy of Albarino dissipates relatively quickly. I'd be wary of any wine from 1996 or earlier and would always choose the youngest bottle available. Recommended wines are listed in order of preference, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:
Martin Codax 1998 ($13, limited availability): It's a sad fact that the least expensive wines rarely win out in my tasting trials, but this wine and the Burgans profiled below provide happy exceptions. Fantastic depth and richness, along with perfect integration of acidity and fruit, helped this to win by a nose. A great wine and an absolutely stunning bargain. (Kysela)
Burgans 1998 ($11): Although this is slightly less concentrated than the Martin Codax, it is more zesty and refreshing, thanks to a very faint sparkle. With vivid fruit and excellent balance, this is a killer wine for the money. I bought a case of each of these for myself, and more wine is not among my many needs. (Kysela)
Lusco do Mino "Lusco" 1998 ($21): An outstanding example of the breed, with impressive weight and intensity, fine floral aromas, abundant ripe acidity and a beautifully symmetrical finish. (Franklin)
Pazo de Senorans 1998 ($18): A brilliant wine that blends great richness with very strong acidic structure. Highly complex and completely satisfying, this kicks the tar out of every comparably priced white wine I've tasted from California during the past year. (Available in northern Virginia from Roanoke Valley Wine Co.; call 540-562-2078)
Morgadio 1998 ($19.50): A wonderful wine with all the elements of Albarino's greatness: Penetrating aromas of fresh flowers and citrus fruit, along with succulent fruit balanced by crisp acidity. Outstanding stuff. (Franklin)
Bodegas As Laxas "Bagoa do Mino" ($18): This high-end bottling from As Laxas shows good depth, a pleasingly fleshy texture, delicious flavors of peaches and ripe melons, and an impressively long finish. (DOPS)
Lagar de Cervera 1998 ($15): An excellent wine at a very fair price, with appealing scents of fruit, flowers and spices. Rich and completely convincing in terms of ripeness and heft, but also delicate and nuanced. (Forman)
Condes de Albarei 1997 ($16): This producer consistently proves that Albarino can not only hold up but even improve for a couple of years after the vintage, so you should not be scared off by the 1997 vintage date. With rich, deeply flavored fruit and really exceptional acidity, this is deftly balanced and sure to hold up well into next spring. (Washington Wholesale)
Columnist Michael Franz will answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com