A truly great Spanish white? Head for verdant Galicia, says Anthony Rose
For a fish-loving nation, Spain is very nonchalant about good white wine. Despite the introduction of modern technologies, Spanish wines generally remain undistinguished. Rioja's Viura rarely rises above the ordinary, and few would confuse Cava with Champagne. The Verdejo grape, which is native to Rueda, can produce good-quality dry white wine in the right hands, but in the interests of much-needed aroma and zing, even Rueda has introduced Sauvignon Blanc. And, arguably, Navarra's best whites are now made from Chardonnay.

Within this vast ocean of mediocrity, however, one grape stands head and shoulders above the rest: Galicia's native Albarino, which reaches its apogee in the Rias Baixas (literally, lower estuaries) region. It's no coincidence that an increasing number of bodegas in Rioja have invested in Rias Baixas for the top of their ranges. Among them are La Rioja Alta, with Lagar de Cervera, Lan's Santiago Ruiz and Marques de Murrieta's Pazo de Barrantes.

Jutting out into the Atlantic north of Portugal, Galicia is characterised by ocean winds and abundant rains which smooth the contours of its rugged coastline and colour the landscape verdant green. This mild maritime climate sets its wines apart from the rest of Spain which tends to be arid. Moreover, its rich resource of seafood finds its perfect complement in Galicia's crisp full-bodied dry whites. Delicately aromatic and richly full-bodied, with subtle peach, melon and honey characters, the whites of Rias Baixas have an ocean-breeziness about them, a juiciness lacking in, say, Muscadet, and a characteristic citrusy crispness.

The small, thick-skinned Albarino grape is planted in 90 per cent of the 1,700-odd hectares of vineyard, where yields are lower than for other local varieties. The berry's tiny size helps concentrate aromas and flavours. Within the three sub-regions of Rias Baixas, Val do Salnes is by far the biggest, and it's here that Albarino is at its purest. Further south in O Rosal, Albarino is often blended with the local Loureira Blanca. South-east of O Rosal in Condado de Tea, Treixadura is the other main blending variety. For the most part, Rias Baixas's whites are made in the crisp, unoaked style, although recently producers have started trying out fermentation in French, American and Galician oak casks.

Apart from limited production (roughly three-quarters of a million cases a year), Galicians themselves cottoned on to Albarino long ago and many of the best Albarinos find their way on to fancy wine lists in Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid. So it's never going to be widely available here or cheap. And not unlike Riesling, Albarino's natural acidity makes it a more demanding wine than common-or-garden Chardonnay. But for a refreshing change, it's well worth trying, especially with a dressed crab or nice piece of monkfish, preferably pan-fried in olive oil with garlic and basil

The wines of Albarino

1997 Lagar de Cervera from Lagar de Fornelos, pounds 6.95, Sainsbury's, Laymont & Shaw, Truro (01872 270545) is a typically zesty, unoaked style with plenty of spritz-fresh, tangy-ripe fruitiness. Bodegas Vilarino-Cambados' 1996 Burgans Albarino, pounds 5.99, Oddbins, is fresh and fruity with an attractive apricoty character. From Bodegas Salnesur, the 1995 Condes de Albarei Clsico, pounds 5.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, is still remarkably fresh and juicy with an appealing lime-like zestiness. Its more complex sister wine, the 1996 Carballo Gallego, which is fermented in Galician oak, is available, approximately pounds 10, from Hallamshire Wine Co, Sheffield (0114 2571202) and the Wine Bureau Harrogate (01423 527772). The excellent 1997 Segrel Ambar will be available from September from A&A Wines, Cranleigh (01483 274666).