The West Coast of the Iberian Peninsula is home to some of the world’s most refreshing white wines. The influence of the Atlantic Ocean creates a cooling maritime climate, ensuring wines have remarkable liveliness, along with an inherent briny salinity thanks to the salty sea air that blows through the vineyards of Galicia, Spain, and Vinho Verde, Portugal.
Sitting on opposite sides of the Minho River, Rias Baixas, in Green Spain’s northwest corner, and Monção e Melgaço, the furthest northern part of Portugal, the regions successfully showcase the citrus, stone fruit, and sunshine-filled variety of Albarino, as it is known in Spain, and Alvarinho, as it is called in Portugal. I have been a fan of the single-variety Spanish Rias Baixas wines for years, as the relatively new region (just becoming a D.O. in the 1980s) crafts lively wines are ideal for enjoying on their own or with fresh fish and seafood, light pasta, spring salads, charcuterie, and cheese.
Just on the other side of the river, Vinho Verde producing Portuguese have blended the variety with other white selections, like Arinto, Avesso, and Trajadura, along with adding a bit of CO2, for generations, creating light, fresh, crisp wines with a bit of effervescence, making them fun, easy, and approachable.
Over the years producers have taken the classic Vinho Verde wines in new directions, set on producing more serious wines, key winemakers knew there could be more to the wines, especially those from Monção e Melgaço, and began introducing single-variety selections without the addition of CO2, instead they utilize techniques like barrel aging, and aging on the lees, giving the wine’s richness and complexity.
The result has been spectacular, as, like the wines of Spain’s Rias Baixas, the granite filled soils of Monção e Melgaço give the earthy, mineral-intense character to Portugal’s Alvarinho, while the aging techniques give texture and structure, with an elevated character and personality that is thoroughly enjoyable. As the location of the vineyards, away from the Atlantic, but bordering along the Minho, the briny character you often find in the Spanish Albarino wines isn’t as present in the Portuguese Alvarinho, instead these wines often have a hint of smokiness, along with the citrus, stone fruit, and crushed stone minerality.
One of the leading producers within Monção e Melgaço is Miguel Queimado of Vale dos Ares. When others were blending, he was selecting ideal areas within his 300-year-old family estate to create not only single-variety wines from but also single-vineyard wines. His wines not only allow the variety to shine, but also the land, expressing the granite, shist, shale, clay, and sedimentary rock soils. Though granite is dominant throughout the region, the other soils add to the mineral-rich influences on the wines. Highly aromatic, with bright, crisp, vibrant acidity melding with creamy, nutty notes, Vale dos Ares Vinha da Coutada ($37) is the perfect balance of freshness with richness. Aged 12 months in barrel, and another year in bottle, the wine has an elevated character showcasing the quality and the beauty of Portuguese fruit.
With a rounded palate and full-body, Adega de Monção Deu la Deu Reserva Alvarinho ($20) showcases fleshy, juicy, golden fruits like golden peach, apricot, and apple with honeysuckle, orange blossom, lilikoi, and subtle flinty green notes. The cooperative winery comprised of 25 vintners has been producing since the 1950’s, with the vines selected for this bottling coming from some of the oldest in the group.
On the other side of the river, Rias Baixas expands from one side of Galicia almost all the way to the other east to west, and north to south. There are five sub-zones of Rias Baixas, and though other varieties are permitted in small amounts in some, the leading white grape for all is Albarino. Though there are various theories of where the Albarino variety came from.
Wine has been made in the region since the 12th Century and Galicia is home to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, the church marking the end of the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, traveled by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the past several thousand years to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great. The overall theory is that the variety is indigenous to the region, as not many other varieties could not only survive, but thrive, in the region’s terroir. Though these wines are ideal and delicious upon release, giving the wines a bit of time in the bottle allows enhanced tertiary notes to shine, giving Albarino wines additional complexity, and style.
Located in the center of the Salnés Valley district, small production Viega Naúm specializes in wines made exclusively with Albariño grapes from small plots of vines averaging at least fifteen years old. The wine has a distinct briny, oceany character, melding with wildflowers, lemon peel, grapefruit pith, and a touch of bitter lime. A good opening wine with tapas or to enjoy with fresh shellfish or Galician octopus.
Santiago Ruiz O Rosal Rias Baxias, $17, from one of the most southern parts of the region near Portugal, O Rosal, which is inherently warmer, and a few other approved varieties for the region can ripen to their fullest ability, creating juicy lemon, green apple and lime filled Albarino based wines with zest and freshness. Santiago Ruiz, considered the father of Albarino, began his winery at the age of 70, fiercely marketing the brand and the quality of his wines, as well as all wines of the region…following in the footsteps of his grandfather who was the first to produce a wine labeled with Galicia in 1860. Today, Santiago’s daughter, Rosa, runs the winery, maintaining the quality her father created and was so proud of.
From 50-year-old vineyards, grown in sand and granite-filled soils in the Salnes sub-zone of the region, Bodegas Castro Martin Family Estate Albarino ($20) is harvested and then fermented in stainless steel in their gravity-flow facility to capture the freshness of the fruit. The wine is then aged for around 6 months on the lees (yeast) which adds depth and texture to the stone fruit notes of peach, nectarine, and soft herbs lingering throughout the luscious wine.