I was fortunate to recently attend an Albarino wine tasting and food pairing event at the Little Goat restaurant in the West loop of Chicago. The Little Goat is one of Stephanie Izard’s (winner of Bravo’s Top Chef) two restaurants. The event was hosted by Tastemaker and Sommelier Jill Zimorski. Jill is the Wine Director and Sommelier for 3-star Michelin restaurant Alinea, based in Chicago.
Jill walked us through 5 different Albarino wines from Rias Baixas, Spain. Rias Baixas, pronounced (Rias BY-CheZ) a Denomination of Origin (or D.O. as referred to in Spain) is located in the region of Galicia (GA-LEE-Thia) in Northwestern Spain. It was established as a D.O. in 1988, and is perched directly on top of Portugal, butting up against the Atlantic coast.
Rias Baixas has a unique, cool maritime climate with ample rain balanced by more than 2,200 hours of abundant sunlight during the critical grape growing and ripening season. Albarino is the primary indigenous white grape to this region. The soils are primarily granitic and the coastal climate also supports mineral-rich alluvial top soils (a combination of clay, silt, sand and gravel that forms over time from running water deposits). All of these factors combine to create Albarino wines with good natural acidity and balance, moderate alcohol (approx. 12.5%) and an aromatic nose with streaks of minerality on the palate, making it a refreshing, thirst-quenching, great food pairing wine, perfect for the spring or summer.
Ninety-nine percent of all wine made in this region of Spain is white wine. The people of Galicia primarily eat seafood due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. As a general rule of thumb, white wines typically pair best with shellfish and seafood. The Albarino grape represents 90% of all plantings. Other important permitted grapes include: Treixadura and Loureiro which are often blended with Albarino and Caino Blanco, Torrontes and Godello.
We tasted Albarinos made into several different styles. Here are some of the winemaking trends and techniques currently being used in Rias Baixas:
- Pre-fermentation maceration: After the wines are harvested and the grapes gently pressed, the pulp, juice and skins, known as the must, are left to cold soak at low temperatures from anywhere from several hours to several days. Leaving the must soak for longer periods of time increases the wine’s aromatic complexity and structure.
- Wild yeast versus cultured yeast: Many Albarino winemakers are now favoring fermentation with the native or wild yeasts found in their vineyards, as opposed to inoculating with cultured yeast. Wild yeasts result in aromas that represent more of an authentic reflection of the characteristics of the grape and the terroir.
- Barrel fermentation and ageing: Barrel fermentation can be used to impart additional texture and increase the ageing potential of these wines. Though not common, barrel ageing adds complexity, flavors and structure to the wine. These techniques are often used in a year of extraordinary ripeness, when the wines are robust enough to benefit from oak.
- Malolactic Fermentation: The question is whether to allow malolactic fermentation or not. This is definitely a stylistic choice and it depends on the winemaker. I tried some Albarinos that went through no malolactic fermentation, some that went through partial and some where all of the wine went through this secondary form of fermentation. I enjoyed all three styles, but on a hot summer day, I prefer a crisp, refreshing wine to quench my thirst. As a result, I tend to gravitate to those wines that are free from malolactic fermentation. In the fall or spring, I may tend to lean towards partial or full malolactic fermentation and some barrel fermentation or ageing.
- Extended contact with the lees or Sur Lie: After a wine goes through fermentation, the dead yeast cells called lees are removed from the wine. However, the small particles of lees can release compounds that enhance flavors and aromas and produce a rounder, fuller texture to the wine if they are left in the wine for periods of time instead of being racked off the wine directly after fermentation. Contact with the lees also helps preserve its freshness until bottling. This is a very common practice in Rias Baixas.
The wines were paired with a variety of foods to demonstrate that Albarino pairs well with other dishes besides just seafood or shell fish. We tried all 5 wines with tuna poke with piri piri, smoked blueberries, daikon and radish, beef tataki with unagi, English pea tapenade and a spring onion pierogi with chive yogurt and rhubarb relish.
I have to admit, Jill didn’t need to persuade me into thinking Albarino is a fashionable wine. Albarino has long been one of my favorite white wines to enjoy in the summer and I encourage you to try it if you haven’t yet done so. Here are some of the producers and wines we tried.
Wine #1- Terra De Asorei Producer 2015 Pazo Torrado, stainless steel fermented, no malolactic fermentation or sustained lees contact. 12.2% www.terradeasorei.com
Wine #2- Bodeaga Veiga Naum Producer 2015 Veiga Naum Albarino, stainless steel fermentation, no malolactic fermentation or sustained lees contact. 12.4% www.bodegasriojanas.com/en/bodega/veiga-naum
Wine #3- Martin Codax Producer 2014 Martin Codax, 3 weeks fermentation in stainless steel; 40% of wine undergoes malolactic fermentation, rests on light lees for 4 months with no oak contact. 12% www.martincodax.com
Wine #4- Bodegas La Cana Producer 2014 La Cana, maceration with wild yeast for two hours, stainless steel fermented, left in contact with lees for 8 months. 12.5% www.lacana.es
Wine #5- Altos De Torona Producer 2015 Altos De Torona Rosal, blend of Albarino, Loureiro, Caino Blanco. 12.5%