Tasting Spain's Dark-Horse White Wines



Mention Spanish wines and you're likely to evoke visions of tooth-staining Tempranillo and the ripe fruit flavors of Garnacha. But around this time of year, when outdoor tables are set for al fresco dinners and cravings turn to lighter fare, Spain's white wines offer an attractive alternative to the Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc-Pinot Grigio trifecta that plagues wine lists everywhere.

For a white that falls into the oft-cited "aromatic" category, Albariño from Rias Baixas in Galicia is increasingly popular—and with good reason. These crisp, pretty wines have great acidity with plenty of lush fruit and flower notes. The thick-skinned grape thrives along the region's green, fog-crowned hillsides. More than half the winemakers in Rias Baixas are women—in part because the men have traditionally made their living at sea, fishing and harvesting coveted percebes—long-necked, black barnacles—at great peril along the Costa da Morte. Could it be this feminine touch that results in wines capable of retaining delicateness despite their razor-sharp acidity?

Perhaps not, but you might be surprised to learn that, like the best of women, Albariño ages beautifully. Fefiñanes 1583, for example, spends five months in oak barrels in the damp cellars of the winery's 17th-century palatial estate. The result is an elegant, almost Burgundian white that pairs wonderfully with briny seafood dishes or even soft, creamy cheeses like the breast-shaped tetilla for which the region is known.

Spain's wild northwest is also home to Loureira Blanca, Treixadura, and Caiño Blanca, indigenous white varieties that are sometimes blended with Albariño to add sweetness and roundness. Terras Gauda's O'Rosal uses Loureira and Caiño to add soft, peachy notes to the crisp, green Albariño. The winemaker, Emilio Rodriguez, is so fond of these lesser-known grapes that when I met him he confided a desire to make a 100-percent Caiño wine, unheard of among his compatriots.

A little further south, in Monterrei, a town that sits on the Portuguese border, winemakers blend grape varieties including Godello, Doña Blanca, Treixadura, and Verdello. Most of what the 20-odd wineries here produce is either sold in bulk or consumed by the families that make it. Benaza, a winery that prides itself on making its wines with as little tinkering as possible, produces a Godello with dashes of Doña Blanca and Treixadura that is so fat and creamy a sommelier once told me he snuck it onto his wine list in lieu of a Chardonnay.

Godello is one of those grapes that, like so many regional varieties in Spain, came close to disappearing altogether as growers replaced it with international varietals. These days, a renewed zest for native grapes has the nation's winemakers and drinkers craving wines that are distinctly Spanish. Manuel Fariña, of the Bodegas Fariña winery in the tiny region of Toro, says that because certain indigenous varietals haven't been planted in so many years, the vines can be incredibly old—up to 140 years in Toro. His winery's Malvasia, made from a grape usually associated with dessert wines, is dry, citrusy, and mildly herbaceous, with a long, honeyed finish. He likes it with heartier fish, like salmon, but I found that it is quite good on its own.

In Rioja, the country's most prolific winemaking region, several ancient white varietals are being used for the first time in generations. Of nine new grapes added in 2007 to the list of varieties accepted by Rioja's wine council, six were white and three were indigenous to the area. One of these, Tempranillo Blanca, is a spontaneous mutation—an albinism—of the better-known red grape of the same name. Viña Ijalba, whose tasting room is located atop a tower overlooking its organic vineyards, produced its 2005 Blanco with Tempranillo Blanca and Maturana Blanca, another long-forgotten grape recently rediscovered in Rioja. Barrel-fermented, it's fruity yet tart, with a mild (and intentional) hint of oxidation. Most wineries in Rioja make at least one white: a Viura. Muga's Blanco 2008 is blended with Malvasia. Also barrel-fermented, it's crisp and flowery, with a satisfying, weighty texture. The wine stood up well to an array of charcuterie and sausage, which bodes well for those of us who can make a meal out of such things.

I don't condone ABC drinking (that's Anything But Chardonnay). Quite the opposite—I could easily live out my days on the Côte de Beaune. But just because a grape is grown in every winemaking nation on earth doesn't mean it should be. Seeing so many regional viño blancos cropping up is heartening and exciting—not only because the wines have a sense of place and provide a valuable link to Spain's agricultural past, but also simply as respite from the reign of Sauvignon Blanc.