Spain's Sensational Summer Whites
Although they’re often overlooked in favor of the country’s red wines, Spain’s whites offer quality and diversity in both style and origin.
Spain may be best known for its lusty Tempranillos from Rioja and Ribera del Duero and its vibrant Garnachas from Aragón and Priorat, but when it comes to versatility and outright food friendliness, its blended and varietal white wines deserve more than passing acknowledgement.
From Galicia in the northwest corner of the country across the Iberian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea, Spain produces a multitude of very good to excellent white wines. They range in style from crisp and citrusy to minerally and polished to lush and oaked.
This makes perfect sense. Except for where it butts up against Portugal, Spain is surrounded by water—either the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean—and thus seafood has long been a major player in the Spanish diet. And what type of wine goes best with the fish, clams, shrimp and lobsters pulled from these waters? White wine, of course.
Spain’s best regions for white wines are Rías Baixas, Ribeiro and Valdeorras (all three of which are in Galicia) as well as Rueda and Catalonia. For those unfamiliar with Spanish whites, it’s helpful to know what grape types are grown where; what are the climatic and geological factors that create regional terroir; what are the overriding characteristics of each region’s wines; and finally, what foods go best with those wines.
Home to the Albariño grape, which in general yields a medium-bodied, often lees-driven yet citrusy white wine, Rías Baixas (REE-ahs BY-shahs) means the “lower estuaries” in the local Gallego language. About 90% of the vines grown in Rías Baixas are Albariño, an early-ripening grape with similarities to Riesling, although there are some Treixadura (Tray-shah-DOOR-ah) and Loureira (Loo-RARE-ah) plantings throughout the region as well. In terms of terroir, Rías Baixas, which contains the subzones of Salnes, O Rosal and Condado do Tea, is a fertile, fairly humid area that’s heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and the Miño River, which flows west toward the Atlantic while separating Spain from the northern border of Portugal. Major cities include Santiago de Compostela, Vigo and Pontevedre, the latter located in the heart of Salnes.
When to drink Albariño? In most cases, the earlier the better. Despite having good vitality in youth, Rías Baixas wines tend to lose their freshness and zest within two years of harvest.
90 Terras Gauda 2010 O Rosal; $24.
A consistent Albariño with small percentages of Loureira and Caiño Blanco. Aromas of mango and pineapple are backed by leesy, green melon, apple, vanilla and cream flavors. Fleshy on the finish, but with good acidity. Serve with Dungeness crab salad; steamed mussels Provençal. Imported by Aveniu Brands, Inc
90 Leira 2009 Albariño; $15.
Elegant and well-made Albariño with lemon chiffon, pear and apple aromas. Offers depth and minerality, with apple, pear, honeydew and spice flavors. Teetering on lush, it needs to be drunk now. Serve with salads; raw or cooked shellfish. Imported by Vinaio Imports.
89 Adega do Eidos 2009 Eidos de Padriñán Albariño; $24.
Creamy and powdery on the nose, with sweetness and leesy notes. Smooth and not terribly cutting flavors lean toward honey, melon and another shot of lees. Drink immediately since it’s an ’09. Serve with raw oysters, clams and mussels. Imported by Classical Wines.
Located about an hour inland from Rías Baixas but very much part of the province of Galicia, Ribeiro (ree-BAY-ro) is partly ocean influenced (meaning humid) and partly continental in character. It has been a wine-producing area for centuries, always with a focus on grapes including the native Treixadura, Loureira, Torrontés, Albariño and Godello (go-DAY-o). Blended white wines with a green fruit character and light tropical notes dominate in the Ribeiro region, which extends out from the city of Ourense. Whereas Rías Baixas is at sea level, Ribeiro features some elevation (up to a few hundred meters) and more rocky soils. Wine styles range from minerally and crisp to deeper and more lush. And whereas very few Albariños from Rías Baixas ever see the inside of a barrel, the higher elevations of Ribeiro give the grapes more structure and body weight, which affords winemakers the option of applying oak to their wines.
93 Emilio Rojo 2009 Blanco; $53.
This five-grape blend is lush, rich and shows barrel characteristics and depth. Toasty and alluring, with layered flavors of baked apple, tropical fruit and honey. Long on the finish, with an appealing texture and fine acidity. Serve with fish in a white wine and butter sauce; crab and lobster. Imported by De Maison Selections, Inc.
90 Viña Mein 2009 Domillor Harvest Selection; $19.
A barrel-aged surprise. The nose is round and toasty; the palate is balanced and elegant, with integrated flavors of dry apple, cream and spice. It has the right texture; 70% Treixadura with five other white grapes. Serve with pork loin or chops; baked guinea hen; grilled vegetables. Imported by Aviva Vino.
88 Viña Costeira 2009 Blanco; $15.
A dry, green-fruited wine that’s juicy, citric, tangy and features pure orange, lemon and lime aromas and flavors. A quaffer made from 70% Treixadura along with Torrontés, Godello and Albariño. Serve with olives and nuts; salads; fried calamari. Imported by Vitivinicola del Ribeiro.
Valdeorras, located on the eastern edge of Galicia and a stone’s throw from the province of León, is the slate mining capital of Spain. Hence there is a strong mineral component to the region’s white wines, which are almost exclusively made from Godello, a grape that nearly fell by the wayside in the mid 20th century but was reclaimed, beginning in the 1970s, by a few dedicated local wineries. Valdeorras Godello has the greatest potential for excellence among Galician whites, with Ribeiro a close second.
Valdeorras, which sits along the banks of the Sil River, is extremely rural with little going on besides mining and agriculture. As for the wines, look for a golden color, acidity, minerality, good mouthfeel and flavors of apple, peach, almond and melon. Most of the better offerings are unoaked or only lightly oaked.
91 A Coroa 2009 Godello; $23.
Depth and minerality jump up from the bouquet. This slate-driven Godello strikes the perfect balance between body, acidity and fruit. Tastes of spiced apple, melon and a bit of citrus. Serve with roast chicken; turkey; grilled or baked fish. Imported by De Maison Selections, Inc.
90 Bodegas Abanico 2010 Tempestad Godello; $21.
Almond and mineral accents set up polished apple and peach flavors. A refined, complex mouthfeel and a long finish ensure that the value quotient on this wine is high. Serve with roast monkfish; paella. Imported by Grapes of Spain.
89 Telmo Rodríguez 2009 Gaba do Xil Godello; $19.
Fragrant, clean and tropical, with slate-driven minerality. Just fleshy enough, with flavors of green apple, fresh green herbs and a drip of honey. Serve with fried artichokes; Serrano ham; cheeses. Imported by Vintus LLC
Rueda is situated further south and to the center of Spain than the aforementioned Galician white wine regions, in Castilla y León, near the city of Valladolid and south of the Duero River. It is lower in elevation than nearby Ribera del Duero (about 40 miles to the east), and thus warmer.
Due to its proximity to the river, Rueda’s vineyards are filled with alluvial deposits and large round rocks, which help provide a “stony” and crisp spine to the Verdejo and Sauvignon Blanc produced in the region. Among the two, Verdejo is the signature wine in Rueda, and in good form it shows pungent aromas of grapefruit and passion fruit. In general, Verdejo does not age that well, so it’s best to seek the youngest bottlings possible. By the time you read this, most wineries will have released their 2010s; those are the wines to seek now.
90 Pedro Escudero 2010 Fuente Elvira Verdejo; $17.
Delicious as refreshing, unoaked white wines go, with grapefruit and stony aromas in front of a pure palate endowed with grapefruit, passion fruit and tangerine flavors. Serve with salads; grilled fish topped with olive oil and lemon juice. Imported by Grapes of Spain.
90 Palacio de Bornos 2010 Verdejo; $13.
Zesty and clean, with grapefruit and passion fruit aromas balanced with bright, focused citrus and pineapple flavors. Lemony acidity keeps the finish rolling. Serve with salad Niçoise; stuffed piquillo peppers. Imported by Kysela Père et Fils.
90 Naia 2009 Verdejo; $15.
Bursts with orange, grapefruit, green apple and peach aromas and flavors, while the finish is pure and long. Tasty and easy to like; a go-to value white. Go with the 2010, rather than the ’09. Serve with nuts and olives; salads; grilled shrimp. Imported by Aviva Vino.
Catalonia occupies the northeast corner of Spain, with large swaths of vineyards extending to the south and west of Barcelona into the Penedès. It’s an ancient, limestone-based region best known for its Macabeo (known as Viura in Rioja and elsewhere), Parellada (PAR-ay-ada) and Xarello (CHA-rello). This trio of white grapes forms the basis for Cava production, although the table wines made from these grapes can be inconsistent and sometimes downright unpalatable.
Much of Catalonia’s terroir is heavily influenced by the Mediterranean, while the jagged cliffs of Montserrat provide a stunning backdrop for 95% of Spain’s sparkling wine production. As for Catalonia’s best white table wines, it’s very much a mixed bag. The Priorat region, best known for terraced vineyards and old-vines red Garnacha and Carignan, also sports plantings of white Garnacha (Garnacha Blanca), while the Costa Brava region of Empordà and inland Costers del Segre feature some worthy Macabeo.
94 Clos Mogador 2008 Nelin (Priorat); $57.
A “wow” type of blended white, Nelin delivers layered aromas and equally impressive melon, honey and peach flavors. Smooth, silky and stylish. Made mostly from Marsanne and Roussanne. Serve with grilled or roast fish; sautéed shrimp; broiled lobster; cow’s milk cheeses. Imported by Europvin.
89 Oliver Conti 2009 Treyu (Empordà); $16.
loral fragrances join honey and leesy aromas. The mouthfeel is creamy and oily, with a melony flavor profile and a smooth finish. An exotic, intriguing, uncommon blend of Gewürztraminer and Macabeo. Serve with salads containing nuts and fresh fruits; seafood. Imported by Winebow.
89 Castell del Remei 2010 Blanc Planell (Costers del Segre); $13.
Refreshing stuff that’s 50% Macabeo and 50% Sauvignon Blanc. Aromas suggest lime, orange and grapefruit flavors with perfect acidity. Serve with salads; rice dishes. Imported by Baron François Ltd.