Category Archives: White Varietals

The Albariños of Rias Baixas

Many regions throughout the world are known for a particular specialty—gastronomic or otherwise—but some more than others have the ability to conjure up vivid sensory memories. One such region is northwestern Spain’s Rías Baixas. To the uninitiated, this may just look like a confusingly-spelled set of words. But to those who have visited or tasted the wines and cuisine of this region, the phrase “Rías Baixas” is enough to make the mouth water, evoking the sensation of salinity in many different forms: a refreshing glass of white wine, a briny seafood meal, or the crisp, fresh air of a picturesque oceanside vista.

The wines of Rías Baixas owe much of their personality to the geography and terroir of the lush, verdant region. Situated along the Atlantic Coast, the relatively modern DO (established in the 1980s) is unique within Spain for its focus on white grapes, which thrive in this relatively cool, damp corner of the country. The name “Rías Baixas” (pronounced “re-ass by-shuss”) comes from Galician—”rías” is the word for the sharp estuaries that cut in to the “baixas,” or the lower-altitude region of southern Galicia. These narrow, finger-like bodies of water that stretch inland from the Atlantic Ocean contain a mix of fresh and salt water, making them an ideal home to an incredibly diverse array of delicious maritime creatures that make up the cuisine of the region. Hard granite soils combined with mineral-rich alluvial top soils provide optimal growing conditions for top quality white wine production.

The other key component of this region is its star grape variety: Albariño. While other varieties are permitted, Albariño makes up the vast majority of plantings, and with good reason. It has the ability to produce distinctive wines that maintain their unique varietal character in a wide range of styles, owing both to the diversity of the five different sub-zones and to winemaking decisions such as maceration length,  the use of wild yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, malolactic fermentation, and lees contact.

Texturally, Albariño typically falls somewhere between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, while flavor-wise, floral perfume, zesty citrus, stone fruit, and minerality are ubiquitous. In the warmer sub-regions of Rías Baixas, ripe melon and peach flavors dominate, while bottlings from cooler climes are often marked by lean acidity as well as grapefruit and lemon notes. An undercurrent of salinity runs through most examples, making them an unparalleled pairing with the region’s plentiful seafood offerings. The Albariño grape is so integral to the style of the wine produced in Rías Baixas that the name of the variety is printed on every bottle—a practice rarely seen elsewhere in Spain (or most of Europe, for that matter).

Thanks to the adaptability of Albariño and its friendly, near-universal appeal, the Rías Baixas DO has something to offer just about every white wine drinker. These wines can be enjoyed year-round, but are especially delightful during the spring and summer, when warm, sunny weather calls for a crisp, refreshing beverage. They sing when paired with any kind of marine life—particularly oysters or scallops—but are equally fantastic on their own. If you can’t make it to Spain for a vacation this year, a bottle of Rías Baixas Albariño just might be the next best thing.

Some of our favorites include:

Granbazan Etiqueta Ambar Albariño 2015
Bright yellow stone fruits come to the forefront here in this complex example, with notes of marzipan, rose, spice, and citrus pith. The palate is round and fleshy, but vibrant acidity keeps it light and freshing.

Condes de Albarei Albariño 2015
This is all about the floral side of Albariño, with a lovely perfume and high flavor intensity on the palate. The luscious texture brings to mind peaches and cream.

Martin Codax Albariño 2015
A great entry-level option—the price is right, and the fruit is ripe and mouthfilling. The flavor profile is simple and straightforward, with plenty of fresh apple and pineapple as well as some nutty character.

Valminor Rias Baixas Albariño 2014
Stone fruit and grapefruit shine in this flavorful bottling, with hints of dried herbs and spice on the long finish. Searing acidity means that this one may not be for beginners, but makes it an excellent complement to grilled fish, lobster, or crab.

Pazo de San Mauro Albariño 2015
This is a big Albariño, with a rich creamy texture and notes of baking spice and marzipan alongside yellow peach and nectarine.  If you’re looking to make the transition from red to white wine for summer, this would be a good place to start!

Summer in a Bottle: The Albariño of Rías Baixas

Many regions throughout the world are known for a particular specialty—gastronomic or otherwise—but some more than others have the ability to conjure up vivid sensory memories. One such region is northwestern Spain’s Rías Baixas. To the uninitiated, this may just look like a confusingly-spelled set of words. But to those who have visited or tasted the wines and cuisine of this region, the phrase “Rías Baixas” is enough to make the mouth water, evoking the sensation of salinity in many different forms: a refreshing glass of white wine, a briny seafood meal, or the crisp, fresh air of a picturesque oceanside vista.

The wines of Rías Baixas owe much of their personality to the geography and terroir of the lush, verdant region. Continue reading Summer in a Bottle: The Albariño of Rías Baixas

New Zealand: A Sauvignon Blanc for every Palate

Most wine professionals would agree that no grape variety is more easily identifiable in a blind tasting than Sauvignon Blanc. And perhaps this variety’s unique qualities are more pronounced in wines hailing from New Zealand than in those of any other provenance. As soon as the bottle has been opened and the wine is poured into a glass, an unmistakable perfume fills the surrounding air with notes of zesty citrus, tropical passion fruit, freshly cut grass, tangy gooseberry, and occasionally crisp bell pepper or piquant jalapeño. Often, vegetal aromas like asparagus or artichoke are present as well.

But although New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc typically stays true to its varietal character, don’t mistake its consistency for uniformity. Though many of these wines share common aromas, there is a wide range of techniques available to grape growers and winemakers to coax the raw materials into delightfully different final products.

The decision of when to harvest the grapes is one way in which producers can influence the style of the wine they intend to make. When Sauvignon Blanc grapes are harvested early in the season, they have high natural acidity and flavors that lean toward lime and asparagus. If weather permits and the grapes are left to ripen longer on the vine, notes of tropical fruit and even peach can develop. Producers will select the date of the harvest with this in mind. Some wineries, for example, Jules Taylor, have several vineyard properties throughout a particular region and will harvest each at a different time, so that they may be blended together for a more complex and layered wine.

There are many different clones of Sauvignon Blanc to choose from, and winemakers often select a clone or a mix of clones in order to produce a desired style of wine. Some of these highlight classic New Zealand grassy and herbaceous flavors, while others, such as the Bordeaux clones, tone down these “green” notes and focus on tropical fruit. Mt. Beautiful is an enthusiastic proponent of the latter type of clone. Later, in the winery, yeasts can be selected as well to bring out the desired level of aromatics from the wine. Wineries like Giesen, Whitehaven,  Villa Maria, and Nautilus put a high emphasis on yeast selection, while others like Pegasus Bay choose to rely on the indigenous yeast naturally present in the winery and on the grapes.

Another option in the vineyard is to encourage lower-yielding vines. Generally, as the number of grapes grown in a certain area decreases, the concentration of flavors in each grape increases. This results in a more complex and flavorful wine, and is becoming a more frequent practice in New Zealand vineyards.

Once the grapes have been harvested and transported to the winery, the winemaker has an important decision to make regarding the vessels in which the wines will be fermented and aged. Stainless steel has typically been the popular choice in New Zealand, which preserves the pure, fresh fruit aromas of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Babich, Mud House, Stoneleigh and Astrolabe are known for making wines in this clean, crisp style. But increasingly, winemakers are turning to various types of oak barrels to produce an alternative style of wine. Unlike the production of, say, some California Chardonnay, the aim here is not to add woody flavors to the wine, but rather to round out the texture and create a richer mouthfeel. Often, as is the case with Brancott‘s higher end “B” Sauvignon Blanc, only a small percentage of the wine spends time in oak to create a subtle effect. Some of these wines, such as those from Staete Landt, have a surprising ability to age beautifully.

Another increasingly popular way to enhance the body of these wines is extended lees contact and occasionally lees stirring. This interaction with dead yeast cells adds a creamy yet elegant roundness to the wine. Clos Henri, Mt. Beautiful, Yealands, and Wither Hills all employ this practice to varying extents.

Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, such as Loveblock, goes through the process of malolactic fermentation, much more typically associated with Chardonnay. This helps to soften the tart, green, acidic flavors for a more approachable style that could perhaps serve as a gateway for those not used to the more pungent characteristics common to the variety.

Yet another way to diversify Sauvignon Blanc is to combine it with something other than Sauvignon Blanc. Pegasus Bay does this beautifully with a Bordeaux-inspired blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. This adds great complexity, texture, and some subtle savory notes, as well as extra ageing potential.

With all of these different methods of producing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, not to mention regional variation (Amisfield, for example, is located in the much cooler climate area of Central Otago, the southernmost wine region in the world), it is easy to see that this small country has something to offer that will please just about any palate. If you’ve written off this grape as a one-trick pony, you may want to give it another try. And if you’re already a fan, there likely are many delicious new styles that you have yet to taste. There has never been a more exciting time to drink these wines, which are still almost criminally affordable even for the very best. Try New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc well-chilled as the summer heats up, paired with salads, fish, vegetables, goat cheese, or just a few good friends and the warmth of the sun.

 

South Africa: New Land of Vines

MeerlustOn a continent that typically brings to mind dry, hot deserts and rainforest jungles, it’s easy to forget that there is also wine. But on the very southern tip of South Africa, vineyards thrive and produce a wide variety of grapes. Though the wines were slow to market due to the embargo on South Africa during apartheid,  the country has managed to solidify its presence as a quality wine producer over the past few decades. As a huge fan of South African wines, I wanted to share a few tips on what to try!

Reds are smokey-meaty:
This is a good thing — fire up the grill! Something about the land in South Africa brings out a gamey character in red wines, like bacon fat or smoked meat, especially in Syrah. Continue reading South Africa: New Land of Vines

Bringing back an old friend: The Wines of Chile have reached a new level

16_02_01 1500 Master Class Chile@Wine.com_3180_BlogWay back in the dark ages of wine retailing (circa: 1970s), fine wine shops had Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Chile was nowhere to be found and even California was an afterthought. As the years went by and California gained prominence with the Judgement of Paris, Chile got into the marketplace with its cheap Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots. Often found in sale bins, these became the drinking wines of budget conscious wine imbibers. I drank so much of these bargain basement wines that I ended up throwing the whole class into the “good value” category. As an active retailer in San Francisco in those days, the wines of Chile gave me something “to stack high and let them fly.”

This is no longer the case. Continue reading Bringing back an old friend: The Wines of Chile have reached a new level