I recently tried my first Albarino made in the Northwest, and it was quite a dry wine, which surprised me because I was told it was a Mediterranean-style white and expected something softer. How did this wine come to the Pacific Northwest?
Most of the credit for bringing this Spanish grape to our region goes to Earl Jones, owner of Abacela Vineyards and Winery, which is 11 miles southwest of Roseburg, Ore. The former Florida doctor fell in love with the Tempranillo grape and the wines made from it in Spain. And after a lengthy, wide-ranging search, Jones and his wife, Hilda, bought a property in the sunny hill country of Southern Oregon and started planting grape vines on 77 acres -- largely Tempranillo -- in 1995. Seven acres are devoted to Albarino.
Abacela's first Albarino was released in 2001, Jones said, and the consistency of subsequent vintages has proved Jones made sound decisions, both in choosing the site and in believing it would produce fine examples of what many consider to be Spain's greatest white wine varietal. There, the best Albarino is produced in the Rias Baixas region of Galicia. In Wine Press Northwest's annual "best of the best" Platinum Judging and in an array of others across the region, this is yet another Abacela wine that has consistently won top awards.
The 2011 vintage, like its predecessors, is no shrinking violet on the palate, typically delivering tart acidity that is just short of shocking, balanced beautifully by aromas and flavors focused on lemon, lime, gooseberry, Granny Smith apples and kiwi. A bit of minerality adds to the enjoyment.
It makes for a wine that is perfect with such seafoods as oysters on the half shell, scallops and crab, many tapas and even olives and artichokes, which I often find notoriously difficult to pair with a wine.
In an array of the nation's growing regions, some 40 grape growers and winemakers have been experimenting with Albarino in the past two decades, with wines produced in Washington, Oregon, California, Texas and as far east as Maryland and Virginia, which claims to be the site of the first Albarino plantings in the U.S.
With the wide array of climates and soil types where the grape is grown, not all examples will match Abacela's style, and some wineries choose to produce a fruitier style.
Andrew Wenzl, Abacela's winemaker, said the Albarino grapes from its Fault Line Vineyard are grown largely on north-facing sites or in lower spots where they ripen slowly without giving up the acidity that too much sun will temper.
The vineyard's six blocks of Albarino are picked sequentially, with harvest stretching well into October, usually at a ripeness of no more than 21-22 brix so the wine produced will not exceed 13 percent alcohol.
"We like to harvest the blocks at different brix to combine (the grape's) flavor profile and offer a broader palate," Wenzl said. He believes the result of an extra two to three weeks on the vine is a wine that also can contain hints of apricot and peach from the slightly riper grapes. A soft press in the crusher minimizes the impact of the grape stems on the wine and then aging it on the lees in stainless steel adds complexity and augments the mouth feel.
Finding Albarino-based wines in the Pacific Northwest is no simple matter. When a small group of winemakers and winery owners from the West Coast states gathered Aug. 4 at Abacela for International Albarino Day, they managed to pull together seven or eight from Oregon and California. (The only other Oregon example I've discovered is made by Schmidt Family Vineyards near Grants Pass. Jones told me it recently won best white wine at the Wines of the World competition in Jacksonville, Ore.)
In Washington, Coyote Canyon Vineyard claims to be the first in the state to plant the grape, at its site in the Horse Heaven Hills. The wines have been excellent over the first several years and have won Platinum awards.
They have tended to be slightly less dry than the Abacela version, with the recently released 2011 displaying a flavor profile that includes starfruit, honeydew melon and a touch of pear skin. Yoke's Fresh Market stores in Eastern Washington have carried the Coyote Canyon Albarino, and it's also available at the Prosser winery.
Wine words: Cava
Since we've been focused on a Spanish wine that's found a place in the New World, it seems fitting to spend a moment talking about Cava, the generic term given to Spain's wonderful sparkling wines. Most wine lovers likely know Spain's sparklers through its two best-known producers, Codorniu and Freixenet.
Traditionally, the sparkling wines of Spain were made only with white wine grapes, unlike the Champagnes of France, which use both white (mostly Chardonnay) and red (mostly Pinot Noir). That has been changing as the two Spanish rivals strive to produce sparklers the world will see as true rivals to Champagne, not merely the best that Spain can offer.
Spanish pride being a major player in its wine, the tendency has been to proclaim that Spanish Cava must be made only with traditional Spanish grape varieties, such as Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Codorniu has tried blending in a bit of Chardonnay, which has "filled out" its Cava, according to The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia. And Codorniu also has experimented with red grapes as well, including Pinot Noir.
Freixenet also has been experimenting with Spain's red grapes, but the wine world being slow to accept change, it may be years, if not decades, before the innovations are credited for producing sparklers of substance.
Ken Robertson, retired editor of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.
This story was originally published September 15, 2012 12:00 AM.