The state of the white-wine union in Spain is relatively strong. The country’s best varietal and blended whites have both made their mark amid a sea of more renowned reds.
While there’s room for overall improvement and growth within the category, Spain still produces its share of fine white wines. There are dozens of very good to excellent bottlings made from Albariño, Godello, Verdejo and Viura as well as more obscure varieties like Treixadura, Tempranillo Blanco, Garnacha Blanca and even Palomino, the main grape for Sherry.
There are steely wines, leesy wines, oaky wines and even oxidative wines that all show proper balance through bold acidity matched against compelling flavors of fruit, oak or both. It’s these selections that are driving Spain’s white-wine scene forward.
Spain is a red-wine country. Tempranillo, the pride of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, is the country’s signature grape, and other red varieties like Garnacha and Bobal are heavily relied upon. Recent studies by the Spanish Federation of Wine report that among Spanish wine drinkers, 88% consume at least some red wine during a given year, while only about 40% drink any white wine.
With more than 3,000 miles of coastline and a thriving fishing and seafood industry, white wine has been a Spanish staple for centuries.
However, plantings across this sun-drenched land are more or less evenly split between red and white grapes. The numbers only tilt toward red if the rudimentary Airén variety is removed from the picture. Used primarily for brandy, it accounts for about 40% of total acreage in Spain.
This means that in a country that’s home to about 13% of the world’s vineyards, white wine remains vital. And with more than 3,000 miles of coastline and a thriving fishing and seafood industry, it has been a Spanish staple for centuries.
In general, familiar white wines from established regions prove the most reliable. From Rías Baixas, which butts up against the Atlantic Ocean in the northwest corner of Spain, Albariño is the top performer. In tastings of 2016 and 2017 bottlings, about 80% of wines reviewed were considered very good to excellent, with scores of 87 points or higher.
The top Spanish white-wine export to the U.S., Albariño can show dainty aromas of honeysuckle, apple blossom and sea scents to go with flavors of tropical and citrus fruits and sometimes creamy lees when at its best. Acidity is the key to a good bottling, which makes it ideal for summer sipping or paired with salads and seafood.
By no means infallible though, Albariño can wade into the danger zone from various entry points. Its biggest enemy is premature aging, which leads to a loss of freshness. The other red flag is a smell and taste that’s overly briny and oceanic. A proper Albariño, like the 2017 As Laxas or the 2017 Adegas Tollodouro Blanquito, emphasizes the aromatic charms of the grape.
Bottles to splurge on
Terroir Al Límit 2014 Pedra de Guix (Priorat); $90, 91 points. Despite a tan-meets-orange color, this Priorat white is fresh on the nose with apricot aromas. A solid texture with grip controls the palate, while dry white-fruit and orange-peel flavors end with slightly rubbery white-grape tannins. European Cellars.
Adegas Tollodouro 2017 Blanquito Albariño (Rías Baixas); $27, 90 points. This wine’s pineapple and floral aromas are blowsy at first but settle with airing. Its smooth palate has a full texture, bracing acidity and lightly salty apple flavors that finish with a briny note of seashell. Overall, this balances pop with weight, capturing what can be so appealing about Albariño. W Direct.
Finca Allende 2016 Mártires Single Vineyard Estate Bottled (Rioja); $180, 90 points. Lemony oak is the lead aroma on a round powerful nose with strong barrel influences. Substantive, round and deep, this barrel-fermented Viura is classic in style. Flavors of buttery oak, wood grain, spiced apple and nutmeg finish long, with the lasting impact of nine months spent in French oak. Drink through 2024. New Age Imports.
Bodegas Valdemar 2016 Inspiración Alto Cantabria Tempranillo Blanco (Rioja); $26, 89 points. Ripe, pulpy stone-fruit aromas are slightly floral. This white Tempranillo feels round and plump, with moderate acidity. A full range of white-fruit flavors emphasizes melon, apple and peach, and it’s steady and balanced on the finish. Terlato Wines International.
Avancia 2016 Old Vines Godello (Valdeorras); $34, 89 points. A gold color and overtly woody aromas akin to cedar cover more delicate scents of white peach and pear. A plump body with a resiny texture benefits from bright acidity, while this tastes of salty stone fruits and oak. The finish is long and woody in character. Jorge Ordoñez Selections.
Belondrade 2015 Belondrade y Lurton (Rueda); $57, 89 points. A gold color and wheaty aromas of straw and haystack are devoid of Verdejo’s patented high-toned aromas. A soft palate is low on acidity, while this tastes woody, with hard-to-find white-fruit flavors. A peachy, leesy finish shows residual oak. Enjoy soon. Elite Wines Import.
Godello and other best bets
In the eastern interior of Galicia and along the western edge of Castilla y León lie Valdeorras and Bierzo, respectively. Soils here are rich with slate, often yielding delicious and mineral-laden wines made from the Godello grape. In the 1970s, Godello was so out of favor in Valdeorras that it nearly went extinct. But after a small yet committed group of local growers resurrected the variety, it has been on the comeback trail for the last three decades.
Godello from Valdeorras and Bierzo ranks among Spain’s best white wines. A prime example of high-quality Godello at a good price is Viña Século, made by Vinos de Arganza, based in Bierzo. Oddly, this wine is labeled with the catch-all Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León Denominación de Origen (DO), not Bierzo.
“For Viña Século, the vineyards, which are 70 to 90 years old and grown on steep slopes, are in the village of Valtuille,” says Victor Robla, owner of Vinos de Arganza. “Because these properties have some grapes like Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc that are not permitted in Bierzo, the wines must be labeled Vino de la Tierra.”
Continuing south and east, in the direction of Valladolid, is Rueda. It’s Spain’s capital for Verdejo, a wine with aromatics, flavors and textural characteristics similar to Sauvignon Blanc. Within Spain, Verdejo is the most popular white wine, despite being prone to highly phenolic aromas and flavors of lime, grapefruit, bell pepper and jalapeño.
A Verdejo that avoids these potentially off-putting characteristics is the leesy and creamy version made by Didier Belondrade and his son, Jean Belondrade Lurton, at Belondrade in Rueda. When tasted blind, this wine impresses as a cross between white Bordeaux and Chardonnay from Burgundy, which is exactly what was sought, said Belondrade Lurton when we met last year.
Rueda is Spain’s capital for Verdejo, a wine with aromatics, flavors and textural characteristics similar to Sauvignon Blanc.
In Rioja, justly famous for its Tempranillo-based wines, the leading white grape is Viura, known as Macabeo in Catalonia. Viura is a flexible and versatile chameleon, and can be made in a light, generic style with fresh but simple white-fruit aromas and flavors, or barrel fermented and aged.
Mártires (Martyrs), by Finca Allende, is one of the latter. Owner and winemaker Miguel Ángel de Gregorio barrel ferments and ages old-vine Viura from the town of Briones for nine months, with four months of lees contact. The result is an elevated wine with stately oak character and an unctuous texture.
This wine is not for everyone, especially with its $180 price tag. But, if full-bodied whites with intense barrel influences are your thing, Mártires with baked halibut, hake or sea bass is a great pairing.
In Catalonia, in the northeast corner of the country, the Penedès region is full of white grapes used for Cava. The big three varieties are Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. All are turned into still table wines that are generally direct and straightforward selections without much layering or complexity.
A Catalonian white wine that offers plenty of depth and interest is the fully mature 2014 Pedra de Guix from Dominik Huber, owner and winemaker at Terroir al Límit in Priorat. A blend of Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez and Garnatxa Blanca (the Catalan spelling), this creamy, oxidative wine is round and smooth, with a tannish color and waxy aromas and flavors of dried white fruits and citrus peel.
Bottles $25 and under
Vinos de Arganza 2017 Viña Século Godello (Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León); $24, 90 points. This wine’s stone fruit and green apple aromas are lightly briny and focused. It features a tight, centered palate with vivid orange, lime and green melon flavors. The finish is compact, minerally and driven by energy. W Direct.
Hidalgo 2016 Las 30 del Cuadrado (Cádiz); $25, 90 points. If you like fuller-bodied fino Sherries, then this lees-aged Palomino is up your alley—don’t be scared off by the golden color or its oxidative nose. Its voluminous, pulpy palate deals nutty, peppery flavors that last long into the finish, with solera-style complexity. Hidalgo Imports.
Rioja Vega 2016 Edición Limitada Fermentado en Barrica (Rioja); $25, 90 points. A blast of controlled oak opens this barrel-fermented white Tempranillo that also shows lemon and white-flower aromas. A tight, lemony palate is enriched by oak but remains fresh. Flavors of orange, lemon, salt and oak finish with youthful energy. Drink now through 2032. Curious Cork Imports LLC.
Carlos Moro 2017 Finca San Cibrao (Ribeiro); $20, 89 points. This Ribeiro’s focused citrus and peach aromas are clean and nice. Its citrusy palate offers lean tangerine and apple flavors, with round edges and a dry finish marked by salt and distant bitter notes. USA Wine West.
As Laxas 2017 Albariño (Rías Baixas); $22, 89 points. This wine’s dusty lemon and straw aromas lead to a medium-bodied, creamy palate with healthy acidity. Its quick-hitting apple and grass flavors finish fresh but short, without much complexity. Enjoy now with summery fare. Frontier Wine Imports.
Viña Mayor 2017 Caserío de Dueñas Verdejo (Rueda); $15, 88 points. Punchy aromas of passion fruit, mango and green herbs lead to a round, vibrant palate in this estate-grown Verdejo. Its peppery citrus flavors are surrounded by green melon notes. It’s aggressive on the finish. Bronco Wine Co.