Once wines to bottle quick and drink young, the use of lees ageing sets Albariño up nicely for the slow development of more complex characteristics
Look closely at the label of our wine of the week and you can spot a sacabeira (salamander) scuttling for cover. This little fella used to be a regular sight throughout the vineyards of the Rías Baixas wine region, up in the damp Atlantic-washed corner of green Galicia in north-west Spain. Today, the sacabeira only frequents the cleanest, healthiest vineyards that are free of chemicals and pollution — so winemaker Iria Otero is proud to call him a resident at the cool maritime Val d o Salnés vineyards that produce her Sacabeira Albariño.
Traditionally, most of the region’s vineyards were teensy smallholding plots that doubled up as domestic vegetable patches shaded by vine-covered pergolas. Having researched a doctorate on how the cultivation of the Albariño vine impacts its grapes’ composition and aromas, Otero opts for that traditional pergola approach (though without the cabbage underneath). She also makes more traditional choices in the handling of those grapes, such as fermenting with whole clusters and ambient yeasts before extended ageing on fine lees (particles of dead yeast) for added textural complexity and richness.
When Albariño from Rías Baixas first shot to prime position as the darling varietal white wine of the last decade, winemakers tended to focus on preserving its expressive freshness, capturing all those primary stone fruit, citrus and blossom aromas that combine with naturally high acidity levels for such refreshing appeal. These were wines to bottle quick and drink young, ideally in the sun, rather than wines to lay down for a rainy day.
The use of lees ageing, however, helps to soften the edges of that acidity and also sets the wine up nicely for the slow development of more complex characteristics that come with extended ageing. As more winemakers are proving, Albariño rewards patience, if handled right. I recently tasted Adegas Castrobrey’s Sin Palabras 2013 Edición Especial, an extraordinary Albariño produced near Santiago de Compostela with honey, ginger and lime blossom aromas dancing above its still-powerful steely structure. If you’re lucky enough to spot it (perhaps on the list at Uno Mas), treat yourself, but its small allocation means it’s hard to come by.
Today, I have featured several lees-aged Albariño, some with a few years’ bottle age, some from far beyond Rías Baixas. Look to Laurent Miquel’s charming Les Auzines Alaina 2020 from the Languedoc region (O’Briens Wines, €13.95, from €16.95, March 7-April 3). You’ll also find fine versions from the grape’s original home of northern Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho.
Sacabeira Albariño 2018, Rías Baixas, Spain, 13.3pc, €16.06
An excellent-value example of a more traditional style of Albariño from winemaker Iria Otero. Her Val do Salnés grapes are grown on pergolas without pesticides in three plots with distinct soils and influences (warm valley floor, eucalyptus forest and cooling Atlantic breezes), pressed as whole clusters, fermented with ambient yeasts and lees-aged for 11 months. The textural result has quince membrillo, kernel and white flower aromas, elegant minerality and slow-build acidity, and a subtle grip that could handle fried nuts, roast pork or cheese. winespark.com
Paco & Lola Prime Albariño Lias 2017, Rías Baixas, Spain, 12.5pc, €22.99
Fans of the friendly, briny citrus and stone fruits of the widely available Paco & Lola Albariño might like to trade up to this premium lees-aged expression from their co-op-run Val do Salnés winery. Think exotic fruit, heady jasmine and a whiff of iodine that will love grilled shellfish or Thai curries. Blackrock Cellar, Vanilla Grape, Barnhill Stores, Dwan’s Off-Licence, wineonline.ie
Botanica Flower Girl Albariño 2020, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 12.5pc, €26.95
This classy take from Protea Heights flower farm and organically farmed estate offers aromas of baked earth, desert flowers, exotic pineapple and white peach, with silky texture, singing acidity and zesty finish. A stylish dinner party talking point, perhaps with fish roast on the bone. Provender Wine, The Wine Pair, Bradleys, boutiquewines.ie
Albamar Finca O’Pereiro 2017, Rías Baixas, Spain, 13.5pc, €32
Naturally fermented and lees-aged for 12 months for intriguing aromatic complexity (think citrus and floral notes underscored by balsamic and menthol), with concentrated apricot notes that carry to the long finish and Albamar’s signature steely tension at the heart. Pair with robust seafood soups.
Loose Canon, Lilith, Green Man Wines, Blackrock Cellar, Eleven Deli
Garzon Albariño Reserve 2021, Uruguay, 12.5pc, €21.99
From vineyards surrounded by native woods and just 18km from the Atlantic, this very fresh maritime Albariño has been aged for three to six months on fine lees to somewhat soften its crisp and clean structure. Peach and lemon thyme aromas, pithy grapefruit zest and a brisk saline finish make it a great match for seafood. Baggot Street Wines, Deveney’s, Martins, Firecastle, mitchellandson.com