My Round: Curious fruit

Galicia's Albarino wines range from weird to wonderful. Which is exactly what makes them worth hunting down
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It doesn't often happen that professional tasters feel totally confused by the bottles in front of them, but if the bottles contain Rias Baixas, with its predominant grape variety Albarino, the risk of confusion is immense. I visited the region last month together with two more knowledgeable and experienced tasters than myself, and on our first evening we tasted 37 examples. To begin with, we all had trouble deciding whether certain wines were typical, aberrant, faulty, fine, or just weird. Only as the tasting (and re-tasting) progressed, and especially over the next couple of days, did we really come to grips with this strange, wonderful grape.

It doesn't often happen that professional tasters feel totally confused by the bottles in front of them, but if the bottles contain Rias Baixas, with its predominant grape variety Albarino, the risk of confusion is immense. I visited the region last month together with two more knowledgeable and experienced tasters than myself, and on our first evening we tasted 37 examples. To begin with, we all had trouble deciding whether certain wines were typical, aberrant, faulty, fine, or just weird. Only as the tasting (and re-tasting) progressed, and especially over the next couple of days, did we really come to grips with this strange, wonderful grape.

Rias Baixas is in Galicia, in the northwest of Spain. Its wine goes back to the 10th or 11th century, but has been recognised as a source of high-quality stuff only since the 1980s. "People came here as tourists and liked the wine," explained a spokeswoman for the big Martin Codax co-operative. Rias Baixas growth has been impressive, roughly doubling since 1988. This is particularly noteworthy given its price, which never drops below £7.99 and can climb to £13. David Pearce, of the excellent winemaker Bodegas Castro Martin, laments: "If all Albarino were £1 cheaper, I'd be a lot happier." He also laments that there's "a lot of mediocrity round here". This is inevitable in a smallish region with around 180 producers.

There are reasons for the expense; foremost the necessity of manual harvesting due to the canopied trellising system on which the vines are grown. No machine can get under that canopy - it's hard even for humans. But what really makes these wines distinctive is the strange combination of flavours and aromas that the principal grape encompasses. Albarino vines produce fairly small berries with phenolic compounds on the innermost layer of the skin which give the wine, according to winemaker Luciano Amoedo (of Martin Codax), its characteristic bitter notes on the finish. Now, bitter does not sound good. Phenolics are more usually associated with red wines than white. Isn't this a problem?

In the worst wines, it most certainly is a problem. But winemakers who know how to handle these peculiarities can produce wines that are, at their best, ready to enter the world league tables. They control the bitterness; and preserve the fresh acidity which is one of the grape's hallmarks; and use oak, if they use it all, in small doses. For a good example of successful Rias Baixas, look for the Martin Codax wines, which have the widest distribution (as you'd expect from a company that accounts for not much less than a tenth of the area's production). Its eponymous wine is in Majestic at £8.49, its Burgans label in Oddbins at £7.99. The Rias Baixas from Pazo de Senorans, an excellent producer, is sold by Booths at £8.99. And everywine.co.uk offers a large selection from a dozen or so producers. On the whole, however, these are wines to hunt down from independent merchants. Quantities are not large.

During our three-day crash course in the area, my colleagues and I discovered all manner of flavours in Albarino: citrus, nuttiness, tropical fruits, peachiness, melons. The floral, honeysuckle scents are sometimes overwhelming. Strangest of all, we were often reminded of other grapes - with Semillon and Grüner Veltliner coming up more often than anything else. Indeed, it is one of the characteristics of Albarino to take on the characteristics of other varieties; another indication of how far outside the normal descriptive terminology this variety can lie. We drank wines as old as 2000 with great pleasure, but revelled in Albarino drunk young and fresh. There's abundant variety in there, waiting for discovery. Confusion was never so much fun.

Top corks: Thrias from Rias

Fefinanes 2003 Around £12, from Harvey Nichols and elsewhere; tel: 020 8960 7161 for local stockist Possibly the best wine from the region, ages well for a few years.

Agnusdei Albarino 2003 £10 to £11.60, independents or by mail from Dulcinea Wines, tel: 01634 293 141 From outstanding newish winery, this has honeysuckle aromas and balance.

Valminor Albarino 2003 Around £11.50, independents and swig.co.uk, 08000 272 272 One of the most headily perfumed examples I came across, but with beautiful delicacy on the palate.

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