Albariño is a wine with a story it has waited centuries to tell us.
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.
Four other grape varieties -- Loureiro, Treixadura, Godello and Caino Blanco -- are allowed into a wine labeled as Rías Baixas or one of its five subregions. But Spanish regulations require wines labeled as Albariño to be 100% Albariño (very strict compared with U.S. standards that allow as much as 25% of other grapes in a wine labeled as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon).
Loureiro is the wild card. It's strongly floral even in small quantities, perhaps the reason for the 100% rule. It ripens up to two weeks later than Albariño, which means in some years it rots before it's usable.
And it's why the wines from Santiago Ruiz are so distinctive: refreshing yet complex, with notes of Meyer lemon, passion fruit, rose, jasmine, green apple and oyster shell. In Galicia, they drink it with shellfish and cured ham, but perhaps its ideal match comes from the other side of the world, because its floral qualities make it superb with Vietnamese food.
The handmade map on the label is a personal touch: Winery founder Santiago Ruiz's daughter Isabel drew it to show guests how to get to her wedding.
In fact, in this region of contradictions, it probably should come as no surprise that the biggest producer of Albariño is also one of the best. Martin Códax, a co-op of 500 families with 2,400 separate plots of land that total 13% of the vineyards in the region, is the area's largest winery. The winery is easily the region's most marketing-savvy. And the label is imported by Gallo.
But while the stage seems set for a generic wine of no distinction, that's not the case. That's thanks to stubborn ninth-generation winemaker Luciano Amoedo, who lives in a house built in 1785 and does what he wants. That includes rejecting more than 30% of the grapes the co-op's members brought him last year.
"The best white wines in the world are from very extreme areas and we are one of those," Amoedo says.
I don't think I've tasted a better 2008 Albariño than Martin Códax, with green apple and peach flavors and excellent balance. And at $14.99, it's the cheapest of all the major exports. Gallo's efficient distribution has a huge benefit. Don't you love it when the least expensive wine is best?