The biggest story in wine during the past five years may be the remarkable resurgence of Spanish reds, which emerged from decades of underachievement to challenge the world's best bottlings. But big as this story may be, I confess that it could seem a bit beside the point in the swelter of a Washington summer, when you might well ask: Does Spain also have something great that is light, white and right for this tropical time of year?
I'd answer with a resounding yes. Encouraged by booming consumer interest in Spanish reds, importers are now bringing in Spain's finest whites in rapidly increasing numbers. As recently as three or four years ago, you'd likely have needed good luck and multiple trips to find a good albarino or verdejo, but today they can be found in many retail shops and restaurants in our area.
Although the Spanish renaissance has only recently become a two-tone phenomenon here, whites have been improving steadily within Spain for decades. An influx of modern technology started the process, and demand for fine whites has also risen dramatically. Thanks to general prosperity and revolutionary improvements to the country's transportation system, sparkling seafood is now trucked into Spain's interior every day. Madrid is every bit as hot as Washington, and its food-savvy residents now show the same zeal for sipping albarino with fresh clams that they've long shown for quaffing Rioja with cured ham.
Spain's leading whites are crafted from two grapes that are closely associated with specific growing regions: albarino from Rias Baixas and verdejo from Rueda. Most renditions of both are bottled and released early to maximize their freshness, yet both show enough substance to stand up to moderately robust foods like crab or chicken. Lovely whites are also popping up from elsewhere across Spain, and every wine I've recommended below was chosen not only for general quality but also refreshment value -- in keeping with the season.
Recommended wines are listed in order of preference within categories below. Wines sourced from Rias Baixas and Rueda are grouped together, and regions of origin for wines in the "Best of the Rest" category are indicated in parentheses, as are approximate prices, importers and D.C. distributors:
Lagar de Cervera Albarino 2004 ($25, Europvin/Country Vintner in Virginia; National in the District): Pricey but undeniably superb, this benchmark bottling shows vivid peach fruit with lovely floral aromas and citrus acidity that enlivens the deep flavors. Complete and convincing, this is proof of albarino's potential greatness.
Valminor Albarino 2004 ($13, imported and distributed by Kysela): Tough to beat on performance and almost impossible to beat on price, this features fresh, expressive aromas, substantial fruit and excellent balancing acidity.
Palacio de Fefinanes Albarino 2004 ($17, Kysela): Always among the most delicate and intricate albarinos, Fefinanes is wonderful in 2004, with light body but plenty of flavor and nicely nuanced aromas.
Gran Vinum Albarino 2003 ($24, Grapes of Spain/Elite Wines): The albarino grape is capable of producing everything from light, fluffy quaffers to prodigiously powerful wines, and this impressive bottling is from the latter side of the spectrum. Deeply concentrated and very rich, it nevertheless maintains its balance.
Santiago Ruiz 2004 ($19, imported and distributed by Touton): This blend of albarino, loureiro and treixadura is light, bright and flashy, with delicate fruit recalling peaches and apples.
Esencia Divina (by Gran Vinum) Albarino 2004 ($19, Grapes of Spain/Elite Wines): Still a bit undeveloped aromatically, this is nevertheless a very satisfying drink, with deeply flavored peach fruit and nice mineral accents.
Pazo San Mauro Albarino 2004 ($19, Billington/Winebow): Ample and deeply flavored, with ripe fruit but plenty of acidity for balance.
Abadia de San Campio (from Terras Gauda Estate) Albarino 2004 ($18, A.V. Imports/National): Lean but still flavorful, this refreshing wine shows notes of pears and bright citrus fruits.
Jose Pariente Verdejo 2004 ($18, Grapes of Spain/Elite Wines): Vivacious and peerlessly fresh, this delightful wine features notes of apples and melons accented with interesting aromas of dried herbs and hay. Pass the shellfish!
Fuente Elvira Verdejo 2004 ($14, Grapes of Spain/Elite Wines): This is just a bit less detailed in aroma than the Pariente reviewed above but is even more generous in terms of flavor and body. A serious wine for the money, this seemed as fresh after being open for two days as when the cork was first pulled.
Mantel Blanco Verdejo 2004 ($14, imported and distributed by Country Vintner): The makers of this wine seem to get it right every year regardless of seasonal conditions, and the 2004 is a lovely wine with intense citrus notes and interesting aromas of herbs and freshly cut grass.
Pasil Verdejo 2004 ($13, Kysela): This textbook verdejo boasts intense fruit with notes of green apples, ripe lemons and dried herbs.
Valdelainos Verdejo 2004 ($11, Grapes of Spain/Elite): This excellent value shows relatively rich fruit recalling melons as well as citrus fruits, with nice aromatic accents and bright balancing acidity.
Palacio de Bornos Verdejo 2004 ($11, Kysela): Lean and brightly acidic but still flavorful, this must be one of the most refreshing wines available from anywhere in the world at this price.
BEST OF THE REST
Arabako Xarmant Txakolina (Txakoli de Alava) 2004 ($12, De Maison/Bacchus): Tough to pronounce but easy to like on a hot night, this wine from the Basque country is almost glaringly bright, with green apple and lemon-lime fruit that is tart but not sour.
Creu de Lavit (Penedes) Xarel-lo 2003 ($15, Freixenet USA/National): Interesting and aromatically complex, this wine shows lovely notes of baked apples and ripe pears, with wonderful undertones of wood smoke and straw. Medium-bodied, it is amply flavored but totally dry, with a long, detailed finish.
Marques de la Villa (Toro) Malvasia 2004 ($7, Touton): A surprisingly delicate white from a region that produces some of Spain's most muscular reds, this features lovely floral aromas, fresh fruit and plenty of acidity.
Los Monteros (Valencia) Blanco 2004 ($10, Tasman Imports/Wine Partners): Light and impeccably dry but still very expressive, this offers floral aromas that are flashy but not overbearing, followed by light-bodied fruit and a clean, refreshing finish.