The grape has grown in Galicia on the northwestern coast of Spain, and neighboring Portugal, for about 900 years. But only in the last several years has it become a favorite of U.S. sommeliers, who love its crispness and complexity.
What took us so long to find it? Isolation. Other than pilgrims walking months to reach the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, the region got few visitors until the European Common Market helped Spain improve its internal transportation in the 1980s.
But there was an upside to this isolation. Without many outside influences, Galicia's Rías Baixas region, where Albariño reaches its highest expression, developed its own wine culture, befitting an area where chilly winds and rain blowing off the Atlantic Ocean make the climate different from the rest of Spain.
Female winemakers are far more common here than in the rest of Europe. Everything is harvested by hand, which is why there are few $10 Albariños. And co-ops, which elsewhere often produce low-quality wines, are responsible for some of the greatest leaps forward.
Not incidental to Albariño's story is that the area is recovering from a period as one of the leading cocaine trafficking points in Europe. Last year, an enterprising co-op, Condes de Albarei, purchased at auction a large winery that had been confiscated from a cocaine dealer who made a little wine as a cover.
Condes de Albarei, a co-op of 400 vineyard owners, moved into the enormous Pazo Baión winery, seized from a convicted cocaine dealer in 1995. The co-op had to promise the government that 5% of the property would be used for drug rehabilitation. So now the winery gets some workers from a local rehab center.
I like winemaker Lucia Carballeira's crisp Condes de Albarei main label, but I really liked a nonexported Albariño fermented in Galician oak, which combines the understated toastiness of French oak with the dill and coconut notes of American oak.
In fact, I liked most oak-fermented Albariños I encountered in Rías Baixas. Yet, the fashion for un-oaked wines is so strong that more than one winery said their American importers refuse to handle their oak-fermented bottlings. I hope that changes.
Condes de Albarei is not the only Albariño house in an unusual facility. Bodegas del Palacios de Fefiñanes is actually a castle that anchors the town of Cambados. Construction finished in 1620, the same year the Mayflower sailed from England. Winemaking was different then: The existence of microorganisms such as the yeast that ferments wine would not be discovered for another 55 years.
The place looks like you'd expect a 390-year-old cellar to: dusty, without much lighting, plumbing or Wi-Fi. But the wines of Fefiñanes have a timeless elegance that befits their surroundings, with great balance, freshness and complexity.
Perhaps the credit goes to winemaker Cristina Mantilla, one of the driving forces in Rías Baixas. Mantilla also works at other wineries, including Maior de Mendoza and Pazo San Mauro.
Her wines do not have a single signature style: Some are aged on the lees; sometimes she uses oak barrels and sometimes pure stainless steel. At Fefiñanes, she has superior grapes because the owners have bought from the same group of 60 vineyard owners for more than 60 years.
If you buy a bottle of Fefiñanes, don't rush to open it. Owner Viscount Juan Gil is eager to dispel the myth that Albariño should be drunk young. I loved the '08 Albariño, with fresh notes of lemon pith, green apple and oyster shell. But each previous vintage, back to 2003, got more interesting, with secondary characteristics like clay and rose petal coming to the fore, and fresh lime keeping them from tasting old.
A singular focus
At the other end of the size spectrum is Don Olegario. This is a rarity for a Rías Baixas export: a single-vineyard wine. The 12-acre vineyard around the winery is built on a former granite quarry, an idea to make soil geeks salivate. The wine has marvelous minerality, with strong aromas of oyster shell and matchstick. On the palate, it's focused and balanced, with persistent grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors and a long finish.
Owner and winemaker Carlos Falcon built a wall around his vineyard to stop vandals drawn by the cocaine trade from hiding out and wreaking havoc. Because the wall blocks the wind from the Atlantic, he's unexpectedly harvesting two weeks earlier than before the wall was built, a boon in such a rainy region.
In fact, while Albariño, with its small berries and thick skin, has found a perfect home in windy, humid Rías Baixas, it's not the only grape grown there.