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Aromatic whites, including Albariño, come of age

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Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.

Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.

But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.

What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?

At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.

The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.

Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.

This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.

Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.

  1. Thanks for the article. Each spring, I look forward to my annual shipment of Albarino from Hendry Ranch Wines in Napa. I’m a big fan of their Albarino, and recently got a friend of mine hooked, as well. I will look for the ones you mention in the article as I am curious to taste them, too. Thanks!

  2. Chris, thanks. I’ve enjoyed the Hendry Albarino too.The 2011 was their best yet and I’m keeping my eye on them.

  3. I’m a big fan of aromatic whites too but, $27 for the Hendry? As a retailer I just can’t see asking my customers to spend that when I can get them the real deal for at least half that. Of course that’s always my gripe with California though, spendy.

  4. We too were first wooed by Bokish’s Albariño . We produce an Albarino from Bokish fruit currently. Great fruit that produces a high acid wine, with sweet peach esters.

  5. We too were first wooed by Bokish’s Albariño . We produce an Albarino from Bokish fruit currently. Great fruit that produces a high acid wine, with sweet peach esters.

  6. jon campbell says:

    one arm of our business is the shipping of grapes and juice to small wineries out of state into the midwest and east and over the last 2 years I have been asked about albarino grapes at least once a month by clients! its the new hip white wine

  7. Pilar Mustafa says:

    Marimar Estate’s Albarino is one of my favorites! It’s a must try.

  8. Tammy Boatright says:

    I’m so happy to see Albarino getting recognition. Reds are my thing, so whites are underrepresented in the cellar, but we make an exception for Marimar’s Albarino!

  9. Marimar has a lot of friends out there.

  10. Jennifer Turner says:

    Hi there. I recently put together a blind tasting that largely focused on white spanish varietals: verdejo, viura/macaebo, and albarino. I also poured what I thought could be some imposters (e.g. pinot grigio). I generally found that the spanish varietals were quite difficult to tell apart…from my research, the albarino is typically represented by the combination of more intense aromatics (especially peach and stone fruit) and having the most bracing acidity – compared to verdejo and viura macabeo.

    From the limited selection of wines I showed…this premise seemed to hold true. HOWEVER, all the wines did seem VERY similar to me…I think it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Of course, knowing what specific qualities differentiate the grape varieties would be helpful, lol! :)

    Soo…..I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you think my assessment of albarino is correct? If not, what might I be missing? I’d really like to understand more of these great spanish whites. :)

    Thanks!

  11. Jennifer, I agree that these whites all are very similar. Perhaps you’re trying too hard to tell them apart. It’s a distinction without a difference.

  12. Jennifer Turner says:

    Hi there. I recently put together a blind tasting that largely focused on white spanish varietals: verdejo, viura/macaebo, and albarino. I also poured what I thought could be some imposters (e.g. pinot grigio). I generally found that the spanish varietals were quite difficult to tell apart…from my research, the albarino is typically represented by the combination of more intense aromatics (especially peach and stone fruit) and having the most bracing acidity – compared to verdejo and viura macabeo.

    From the limited selection of wines I showed…this premise seemed to hold true. HOWEVER, all the wines did seem VERY similar to me…I think it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Of course, knowing what specific qualities differentiate the grape varieties would be helpful, lol! :)

    Soo…..I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you think my assessment of albarino is correct? If not, what might I be missing? I’d really like to understand more of these great spanish whites.

    Thanks! PS – sorry if I sent this twice, my connection has been really wonky. :)

  13. Jennifer Turner says:

    And I did send it twice! Thanks for your reply. :)

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