Life's a beach with Albariño

Just back from a week at the beach and already I miss the ocean’s cool breeze, briny smell and salty taste. On the bright side, I’ve found a wine that captures these sun-drenched glories of summer at the beach: Albariño.

Curious that this region—Rías Baixas in Galicia, the province on Spain’s northwestern coast—where it either rains or pours should produce a white so vibrant that it tastes like liquid sunshine, but Albariño grapes thrive in this misty corner off the Atlantic Ocean. Under such wet conditions, rot becomes an issue, so vines are trained on granite posts over 6′ off the ground, giving adequate ventilation. Also, because Galicia had been a poor province before the world discovered the delights of Albariño about 20 years ago, the vines’ heights historically allowed for growing vegetables and raising chickens beneath them from September until June.

Six ways to bring the beach to you:
Benito Santos Saiar Albariño 2009. Market Street Wineshop. $17.
Bodegas La Cana Albariño 2010.
Special order from your favorite retailer. $17.99.
Bonny Doon Vineyard Ca’ del Solo Albariño 2009. $18.
Martin Codax Albariño 2010.
Harris Teeter. $17.99.
Salvenal Albariño 2009.
Tastings of Charlottesville. $13.95.
Soalheiro Alvarinho 2010.
Wine Guild of Charlottesville. $23.25.

Just over the border in Monção, Portugal, Albariño goes by Alvarhino and offers the same lovely beach-in-a-bottle qualities as its Spanish brethen. Once used only marginally in the region’s bread-and-butter wine Vinho Verde, Alvarhino has been sailing solo in Portugal more and more lately. And, though a far reach from the grape’s original locale, California has had some success with Albariño with the one from Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm (who’s known for artful experimentation with international varietals at his Santa Cruz winery) standing out above others.

The bulk of Spain’s Albariño production has focused on simple and affordable sippers released the January after harvest and intended for immediate consumption. But a handful of producers are making more serious versions that ferment on their lees (see Winespeak 101), giving them the ability to age. Such ambition means muy dinero and since the varietal is fairly obscure among the likes of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, the more complex $40 Albariños are still being passed up for the $20 and under quaffers.

Winespeak 101

Lees (n.): Deposits of yeast and other particles that settle to the bottom of a vat of wine after the fermentation and aging processes.

Even though prices, styles and origins vary, the general character of Albariños remains blissfully consistent. They are as clean and invigorating as an outdoor shower with a smell as evocative of the beach as a whiff of Banana Boat. All have a pale yellow color with tinges of green and a distinct salinity and seashell minerality that one would expect from grapes grown in soil so near the ocean. Grapefruit, lemon and pineapple flavors predominate with a silky and slightly waxy mouthfeel. Sage, ginger and white flowers surf around the palate and finish on a pleasantly bitter note that’s reminiscent of orange marmalade and Marcona almonds.

Is that a Virginia wine app in your pocket?

For iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch owners planning on visiting our state’s ever-growing number of wineries, ciderworks and winery-affiliated restaurants this summer, there’s a new app to assist you on your quest. Virginia travel writers Rick Collier and Nancy Bauer developed Virginia Wine In My Pocket ($3.99 on iTunes) after completing an enviable tour of 150 Virginia wineries in 150 days. They snapped photos, gathered info and maps, and wrote tasting room reviews. Each locale can be searched alphabetically or by its proximity to Charlottesville or D.C., which means more time spent tasting and less time spent navigating.

All of this should be making you very hungry, and in true coastal style, the best match for Albariño is simple—fresh seafood. The cooking in Galicia is defined by the freshness of its seafood where octopus, cockles, shrimp, langoustines, clams, and oysters are pulled from the docks in the morning and served later that day either raw or steamed with nothing more than a sprinkle of paprika, a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of Albariño. Back here in land-locked reality, you can do the same with scallops or mussels, or sauté a piece of halibut in garlic and olive oil and then “braise” it in some Albariño with thinly sliced fennel and oranges. Or, pull out that paella pan you’ve never used and invite your friends over for a paella party. It may not be a day at the beach, but it’ll taste like one.

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