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Albariño: A Gastronomic Pilgrimage
By Marguerite Thomas
May 6, 2008
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Albariño: A Gastronomic Pilgrimage

You can drink a specific wine.  You can read books and magazine articles about it.  You may even catch a TV documentary describing it and the place it comes from.  But sometimes the only way to truly understand certain wines is to visit their country of origin, specifically the region where the grapes are grown and some of the wineries there.  In the same way that individuals, and even entire families, may spend their vacation in Ireland, or Africa, or Poland in search of their 'roots,' so too do an increasing number of oenophiles travel to the birthplace of a wine they've come to love.  This kind of trip is particularly meaningful for wines that bespeak of a particular place.  Albariño is just such a wine.

Albariño, the name of both the wine and the grape from which it is made, is the most popular white grape in Spain, accounting for more than 90 percent of all plantings there.  Its true habitat is Rías Baixas, a region perched along the edge of the sea in Galicia, Spain's most northwesterly province.  Since I love the bright, fresh taste of Albariño, and I also love the multitude of shellfish (oysters! clams! shrimp!)  that go so well with the wines, I headed off this past January on a pilgrimage to Rías Baixas.

There is much about Rías Baixas (pronounced Ree-ahss By-shuss) that is surprising, including the fact that the lush, damp, emerald green landscape is more reminiscent of Ireland than the hot, barren plain I expect to see in Spain.  Galicia's frequent rain showers, likewise, conjure up memories of the British Isles.  But it was the droning strains of bagpipe music wafting across the vast main square in Santiago de Compostela, heard on my first day in R?as Baixas that really made me question whether I'd mysteriously landed in some Celtic Kingdom rather than the capital of Galicia.

But I was not dreaming--the Celtic connection is real.  Galicia was settled eons ago by Celts, who left behind remnants of their fortified structures, their dolmens, their mystical practices and their music (contemporary musicians wring tunes out of gaitas, instruments related to Celtic bagpipes).  The Galician landscape is dotted with granite hórreos-- storehouses that stand on four stone posts high enough above the ground to prevent dampness and rodents from spoiling the grain stored within--which are thought to be another Celtic legacy.

By the Middle Ages, the worship of Celtic gods had long since been replaced by Christianity, and Compostela had became one of the great centers of religious pilgrimage.  Even today the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the destination for thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from across the globe who descend on the city in waves every year. 

The massive granite cathedral, consecrated in 1128, is a grandiose architectural hodgepodge of styles and époques.   Its base is Romanesque, but over time more and more disparate elements were added, including Renaissance features and a heavy dose of Baroque.  One of the cathedral's most distinctive and notorious features is the representation of scallop shells here and there in the design--embossed in the church's façade, for example.  Although theories abound about why the scallop came to be associated with St. James and with the pilgrims who flock to the cathedral that bears his name (Sant' Jago: St. James), no one knows the answer for sure.  But since my own pilgrimage was focused more on the worship of gastronomy than on conventional religion, I made it a point to sample Galician scallops (vieiras) at every possible opportunity.

Positioned at the edge of the cold waters of the Atlantic, and with a coastline 1200 kilometers (745 miles) long, Galicia lays claim to some of the world's tastiest and most abundant selection of shellfish, most famously scallops.  One of the most delicious scallop preparations I encountered was served at the Restaurante Ribadomar in Cambados (Cambados translates more or less as 'capital of scallops').  Here, the bivalves were tossed with sautéed onions, garlic and bacon, then returned to their half-shells, showered with bread crumbs, drizzled with olive oil and baked in a hot oven until brown and sizzling.

At Cinco Puertas, in Pontevedra, I ate so many zaburiños-mini scallops the size of my pinkie fingernail-that I began to fear I might grow my own shell and float away on the next tide.  At Restaurante Galloufa, after wolfing down the requisite scallops, I munched my way through a bowlful of tiny, briny shrimp known as camarones, a serving of clams (almejas), and a hefty portion of garlic scented cockles (berberechos).  

Doesn't all this sound exactly like the kind of food that calls out for fresh, young, flavorful white wine, notably Albariño?  I can highly recommend a handful of Albariño labels that I imbibed at these restaurant, all of which available in certain US markets:  Fulget, juicy and smooth, with a crisp, citrusy finish (about $15);  Maior de Mendoza, wonderfully aromatic, deeply flavored and firm ($16); Finca de Arantei, a bushel of sweet fruit braced by an herbal edge ($16); Valmiñor, bright, racy and complex ($16); and Condes de Albarei, crisp and pleasant ($15).

The Romans who conquered the Galician Celts and proceeded to occupy their territory for the next six centuries loved shellfish.  They especially loved oysters.  In Vigo--then, as now, an important port for the oyster trade--one can still find sorceries, shops specializing in oysters, scattered along the little cobblestone streets near the port.  Look, too, on restaurant menus in Vigo, for the popular costars a la vogues (oysters with mushrooms).

It was in Vigo (Galicia's largest city) that I had a fabulous dinner at Maruja Limon.  The promising opening salvos were provided by shooters of creamy pumpkin soup followed by house-made foie grass lightly coated with nuggets of toasted bread (a deliciously clever concept).   The voluptuous character of both dishes was aptly matched to a classy, lightly viscous Pazo Pondal Albariño 2006.  Next, a seared scallop nestled against a bite-sized chunk of pork belly proved a gorgeous melding of flavors from sea and earth.  Chef Rafael Centeno Moyer's deft touch with seafood was emphasized in a union of shrimp and sea bass in garlic sauce embellished with fresh asparagus tips.  Braised veal sweetbreads bathed in a pool of melted San Simon cheese was further proof of Moyer's genius for matching and contrasting different tastes and textures.

I sampled the fare dished up by another of Spain's inspired contemporary chefs in Pontevedra.  José González-Solla's tasting menu was as elegant as his restaurant's black and white décor, but this is definitely cuisine for adventuresome diners rather than those who are most comfortable on familiar ground.  I was treated to a wild and occasionally bizarre gastronomic ride there that included raw shrimp wrapped in pancetta, a sensational red snapper with pureed cauliflower and pistachios, and a wild-pig patty sauced with intense citrus extract.  A refreshing 2006 Mar de Frades Albariño liberally laced with fruit and spice was like a secure life raft guiding my palate along the evening's dizzying bill of fare.

This ability to segue gracefully from one type of food to another is one of the reasons I seldom ordered anything but Albariño during my week-long visit to Galicia (only with red meat did the palate cry out for matching robust red wine).  Nor did I ever tire of Albariños, for the wines offer a range of styles, from tender and delicate, to plump and lush as well as everything in between.  Some of the stylistic differences are the result of winemaking strategies, some from nature itself.    R?as Baixas contains five denominated sub-zones--Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Ribeira do Ulla, and Soutomaior--each with its own climate particularities.

Driving through the viticultural countryside, it is surprising to see so many granite pergolas in Rías Baixas vineyards.  Traditionally, vines were widely spaced and trained high off the ground to maximize sun exposure and minimize fungal infection in the vineyard, but many vintners are switching to the wire trellising system that is used throughout most modern winegrowing regions today (there is considerable controversy in R?as Baixas, however, about which system is best suited to this particular terroir).

Oenophiles visiting R?as Baixas will discover a broad range of different winery experiences as well as different wines.  My own visit began in the Val do Salnés--the oldest subzone, with the highest density of wineries--at Maior de Mendoza, a family run establishment perched on a hill overlooking a covey of commercial mussel and clam beds in the scenic R?a de Arosa; the range of estate grown Maior wines tends to be deep and complex as well as fresh and fruity.  Pazo de Señoráns, also in the Val do Salnés, has a newly designed contemporary winery and tasting room, where I popped in to sample the excellent bone dry, mineral laden wine.

In the Condado do Tea zone I tasted full, juicy, aromatic wines at La Val, and equally big, mouth-filling ones at As Laxas.  The Albariño from both of these producers indicates that the warmer weather in this southerly region plays a distinct role in the ripeness of the grapes.  This was true, too, for the wines from nearby Marqués de Vizhoja, an estate distinguished by its 18th century fortified tower as well as by the quality of its wines, among them a fine Albariño blended with native Treixadura and Loureiro grapes.

On the surface, Mart?n Códax and Palacio de Fefiñanes could not be more dissimilar.  The first is a large cooperative headquartered in a stylish, ultra-modern facility, whose first vintage was 1986; the latter has been making wine in the same Baronial palace since the 16th century.  But a common thread is that both make admirable--though very different--Albariño.  Mart?n Códax wines tend to be polished and eminently sippable ($13 to $23), while Fefiñanes is fresh, silky and long on the palate (about $20).  It is worth noting, too, that I tasted several impressive older vintages of Fefiñanes Albariño--the 1992, for example, still showed a beautiful balance of fruit, spice and minerals, with no hint of deterioration.

O Rosal lies at the southern edge of the region along the banks of the Miño River where it joins the Atlantic Ocean.  There I visited Terras Gauda and Valmiñor, both of them modern, forward thinking wineries.  Because of this zone's somewhat warmer climate and less granitic soils, the Albariño tends to be rounder and less acidic.  Terras Gauda Abad?a de San Campio 2007, for example, has intense flavors, with more backbone and body than some of its peers (($19), and Valmiñor's wines tend mostly towards opulent flavors and a relatively creamy texture ($15.99).  In Rosal I also visited Santiago Ruiz, whose signature wine is a fragrant, soul-warming blend of Albariño, Loureiro, Treixadura (those heady, floral aromas, says winemaker Luisa Freire, comes from the Treixadura).

There's no way, in a week, to visit more than a scant handful of R?as Baixas's more than 190 wineries (up from 60 in 1990--proof of Albariño's growing popularity).  And yet, even this perfunctory overview expands one's appreciation for the wine.  It's become a bit of a cliché these days to say that a wine tastes of a place, but when you visit R?as Baixas you'll discover for yourself the truth behind that oft-heard line.  You'll also discover-in case you haven't already become convinced of this further truism--that certain wines really do harmonize with specific foods.

Cristina Mantilla is one of the most gifted winemakers in R?as Baixas and a consultant at several wineries, including Maior de Mendoza and Valmiñor.  'Albariño is a fantastic grape,' she says.  'It has a great personality that doesn't need oak to bring it out.  And it produces a wine that's especially good with food.'  And, I might add, a wine worthy of a pilgrimage.

PLACES TO STAY IN RIAS BAIXAS

Parador de Santiago de Compostela--Plaza de Obradoiro, 1--Santiago de Compostela--981 563 200; www.paradores-spain.com.  This parador, which claims to be the world's oldest hotel, was founded as a hostel for pilgrims in 1499.  Situated on the plaza right next to the cathedral, it is today a unique hotel, with beautiful cloisters and comfortably luxurious guest rooms.  It also has one of the best breakfast buffets imaginable, which includes a superb array of Galician specialties such as chorizos, empanadas (Galicia is thought to be the birthplace of the empanada), potato omelet (tortilla Gallega), and pimientos de Padrón--tiny green peppers, fried and sprinkled with coarse salt. 

Parador de Pontevedra--C/Baron 19--Pontevedra--986-852 195-- www.paradores-spain.com  One of the best things about this hotel is its location in a pedestrian zone in the lovely historic section of Pontevedra. 

Hotel AC Universal Vigo (C/Carral 34--Vigo--902 292 293).  Historic façade, contemporary décor inside; handsomely furnished guest rooms, many overlooking the port in Vigo. 

RESTAURANTS

Casa Solla-Avenida Sineiro, 7--San Salvador de Poio/Pontevedra--986 872 884

Cinco Puertas--Avenida Santa Maria, 8--Pontevedre--986 851 948

Galloufa-Plaza de la Libertad, 3 Carril--Vilagarcia de Arousa/ Pontevedra--986 508 746

Maruja Limon--Victoria, 4--Vigo--986-47 34 06--www.nove.biz/es/maruja-limon

Ribadomar--Valle Inclán, 17--Cambados--986 543 679