I never imagined the day would come when I would admit to such inclinations, but after much agony and deliberation I must confess that I’m enchanted by Spanish white wines. Perhaps it’s their sheer gustatory novelty, or their “consumer friendly” pricing, or the simple fact that they are lipsmackingly good, or a combination of all of the above. Nonetheless, I can’t manage to keep my hands off bottles of such heretofore obscure grape varieties, such as Verdejo, Godello, Viura (in Catalonia it is known as Macabeo—a principal Cava grape variety), Xarel-lo, Moscatel, Hondarribi Zuri, and Albariño.
Ok, in all seriousness and to be fair, not every Spanish white wine is great, but critics and consumers seem to agree that some of the finest white wine values are coming out of Spain. Thanks to several intrepid importers over the last few years, more and more whites from the Iberian Peninsula have found their way onto American store shelves and restaurant wine lists. While many of the varieties are not well known, their relatively significant store shelf presence alone indicates that the American wine-buying public has grown to embrace them as economical and novel alternatives to the established white wines of France, New Zealand, USA, etc.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Spain and explore several of its up-and-coming white wine producing regions. While we are very fortunate that many of the top producers are imported, I wanted to see for myself where these obscure grapes are being grown, and to decide for myself who constituted the top producers are. I also wanted to visit their wineries, and to venture into the wine bars where the local winemakers gather in the evenings. My quest for el vino blanco took me to Basque country, Galicia, and Rueda. While I managed only to scratch the surface, I drank more of the local vinos blancos than I would like to admit to my doctor and came away with my suspicion confirmed that Spain is a top source of value white wines.
I explored no region and its wines more than Galicia and, in particular, the DO (Denominación de Origen) of Rias Baixas (Galician for ‘lower coastal inlets). Founded in 1988, the young Rias Baixas DO runs along the rugged Atlantic coastline from the Portuguese border north to Cape Finisterre (due west of Santiago de Compostela). The principal grape variety is the white Albariño grape. When the DO was created, there were 492 growers, 14 wineries, and 585 acres under cultivation; today there are an astounding 6500 growers working over 20,000 individual vineyards plots (many one could call backyard vineyards), 198 wineries, and 8650 acres under cultivation. These startling statistics illustrate the incredible growth in viticulture this region has experienced in the last thirty odd years and apparently they can’t keep up with worldwide demand.
The rise of Rias Baixas as a DO and its subsequent popularity has been mirrored by a rise in the quality of the wines. At the outset many of the growers sold their fruit to large cooperatives with a focus on high yields to maximize profits, but as the region developed, more growers started to make their own wines, lowering yields, practicing better viticulture, and ultimately making much more compelling wines. No winery is a better example of this than the much lauded (both in American and international wine publications), Pazo de Señorans.
When the current owners of Pazo de Señorans purchased the estate in 1979, it was planted with kiwi trees and old Albariño vines. At the outset, they sold off their wine as bulk juice, but they soon changed directions when globalization rendered their kiwifruit orchard obsolete and they began to take a personal interest in producing their own wines. They were fortunate in that they possessed some of the oldest vines in the DO and they had the resources to get their venture off the ground. 1990 was their inaugural vintage and over the last 20 years, determined as ever on making the best Albariño possible, they’ve risen to the top. Starting with a production of 7,000 bottles, Pazo de Señorans now produces 450,000 bottles in a state-of-the-art winery. The estate vineyard comprises 20 beautifully trellised (using the traditional method of training the vine up granite post pergolas—a form of horizontal trellising—as in the above picture) acres of Albariño and produces 3 distinct Albariño wines.
By far the largest production wine is the Pazo Señorans Albariño (on the right). This is the wine that made Pazo de Señorans’ reputation and it continues to be the foundation of their brand despite their remarkable and highly innovative bottlings: the Pazo Señorans Seleccion de Anada (on the left) and the Sol de Señorans (in the middle). Made from a combination of estate and purchased fruit, the Pazo Señorans Albariño is an exemplar of stainless steel fermented Albariño. The 2009 Pazo Señorans Albariño (current vintage) displays gorgeous citrus and tropical fruit elements underpinned by an iodine-heavy minerality on the nose. The mélange of fresh citrus and rich tropical fruit notes carry over to the palate along with ripe stone fruit flavors (peach and apricot stand out) and compelling minerality. The result is a remarkably concentrated and rich Albariño with a seductively round, creamy body. This wine fortunately is well distributed in the US; anyone who enjoys Albariño should give this standard-bearer a try.
Those who get a chance to visit Spain should not pass up the opportunity to try the other Pazo de Señorans bottlings that don’t make it to the US except in extremely limited quantities: the Seleccion de Anada and the Sol de Señorans. They represent vanguard efforts in exploring where the Albariño grape can be taken. The 2004 Seleccion de Anada (current vintage) spent four years on its lees in stainless steel, resulting in an incredibly rich Albariño. I was fortunate to try it several times and I can honestly say it is a revelation. The 2006 Sol de Señorans is an experimental Albariño that is aged for 6 months in oak. The resulting wine exhibits oak derived richness and a rounder body than the other two bottlings—a very intriguing and rare wine.
So with what to drink Albariño? In Galicia, it is enjoyed with all manner of seafood dishes, especially shellfish. It is also a great aperitif wine and I always have a bottle or two handy in the warmer months for sipping on the patio. If you haven’t had the chance to try an Albariño or the Pazo Señorans Albariño specifically, I strongly encourage you to try one soon.
Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate:
2009 Pazo Señorans Albariño
93 points: “Pazo Señorans’ 2009 Albariño beautifully displays the high quality of the 2009 vintage in Rias Baixas. Light gold in color, it offers up a splendid bouquet of mineral, honeysuckle, lemon, and tropical aromas. Round, creamy, and remarkably concentrated, this outstanding effort will provide much pleasure over the next 4 years.”—Jay Miller
Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar:
2009 Pazo de Señorans Albariño
92 points: “Vivid yellow-gold. An intensely perfumed bouquet shows aromas of nectarine, iodine, lees and pungent flowers, with a strong mineral undertone. Very rich and exotic but possesses a serious spine of acidity, which adds lift to broad tropical and pit fruit flavors. The lees and iodine notes repeat on a long, floral- accented finish. This wine’s marriage of power and vibrancy, not to mention its complexity, is very impressive.”—Josh Reynolds