Discovering white varietal wines from Spain

THE VERDEJO varietal grape dominates this refreshing Rueda wine. — PHOTO BY SHERWIN A. LAO

FILIPINOS, like most Asians, gravitate towards red over white wines, but white wines are more weather-appropriate to our warm country. Especially now with global warming, the alcohol content in wines tends to be higher, and red wines, by virtue of a longer harvesting period, are easily 1-2% higher in alcohol content than their white counterparts. There are just a few staple white varietals we usually encounter: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, and the fast-growing sweet Moscato wine.

When it comes to white varietal wines, I feel Spain has a much better quality-depth chart than even France or Italy. France has the undisputed “champion-of-champions” white varietal in Chardonnay that makes the best Burgundy and Champagne (blanc de blanc), aside from Sauvignon Blanc (Loire and Bordeaux), Viognier (Rhone/especially in Condrieu) and Chenin Blanc (Loire/especially in Vouvray). Italy, on the other hand, has the immensely popular Pinot Grigio (from several regions including Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli, Trentino, and Alto Adige), Garganega (Soave), Cortese (Gavi), Ribolla Gialla (Friuli), Glera (Prosecco) and, the current Philippine favorite, Moscato (Piedmont/especially in Asti).

However, Spain has three white varietals that I feel can match up with the best white varietals in the world. And I am not even referring to varietals like Viura (a.k.a. Macabeo), Xarel-lo, and Parellada — the three mainstays of Cava.

ALBARIŇOThis varietal is grown in Galicia, northwestern Spain, and is used as a solo varietal in the Rias Baixas D.O. (Denominacion de Origen). It is also available in other Galician D.O.s like Valdeorras and Ribeiro. Albariňo is also one of the grape varietals used in the equally popular Vinho Verde wines of Portugal, where it is locally known as Alvarinho. Rias Baixas D.O. has been one of the best performing export wines for Spain in recent years, mainly because of the reputation of the Albariňo grapes.

As a varietal, Albariňo has a darker yellow hue to greenish yellow color. The aroma is extremely fragrant, literally screaming out of the glass upon pouring. The nose is reminiscent of peaches, apricots, and over-ripened apples, with some herbal elements. On the taste, the wine has a signature “creamy” texture, and a noticeable acid backbone. An excellent wine for a gindara, dory or more subtle flavored fishes. There are a few Rias Baixas wines in town, but it will not be cheap. Prices start at around P1,200/bottle retail — but trust me here, it is worth much more than this value.

VERDEJOThis varietal is grown in Rueda, Castile-Leŏn, and is majority of what goes into a Rueda D.O. wine. Verdejo got major recognition when the famed Rioja Bodega Marques de Riscal made a successful fresher and more aromatic-style Rueda in 1972 from 100% of this varietal. This was in collaboration with one of the world’s best-known oenologist, Frenchman Emile Peynaud. And soon after that, a slew of Rueda bodegas started adapting to this style. By 1980, Rueda was recognized as an official Denominacion de Origenor D.O. mainly because of the Verdejo grape.

As a varietal, Verdejo has a translucent greenish straw color. The varietal has strong fresh fruit aromas, ranging from lychees, longans, and grapefruits, to red apples. The nose also has pronounced fennel and leafy tones. On the palate, the wine is minerally, fresh, light, and crisp on the finish. This wine is perfect as an aperitif, and I would take it with soft cheeses like a Brie or a Camembert. There are more Rueda wines out in our market, and price is extremely affordable, at around P600/bottle retail. One of the best choices would be the Telmo Rodriguez Basa.

GODELLOGodello is another varietal grown in the Galician region of Spain, particularly in Valdeorras D.O. and Monterrei D.O. It is also found in Bierzo D.O. Godello is also known as Verdello (though NOT the same as the Verdello grape in Italy)in the Monterrei D.O. region. Godello was one of reasons why Spanish wines from Galicia are known all over the world as some of the best white wines ever made. Together with Albariňo, Godello wines, mainly the Valdeorras D.O., are very successful in export.

It was only in 1974 that Godello was rescued from extinction. Prior to 1974, most of the vines in Valdeorras were planted to Palomino grapes, the same varietal used for sherries in Jerez. While Palomino would do excellent in Jerez, it was not very respectable when it was produced in Valdeorras. The restructuring of the vineyards, and emphasis on Godello had paid off for the region as Valdeorras D.O. wines are now recognized by the wine world.

As a varietal, Godello has a yellow straw color. The varietal has subtle fruit, floral, and nutty aromas, ranging from nectarines and white flowers to almonds. The nose is quite complex with many different elements. The varietal takes a different style altogether when oaked aged, where it becomes bolder, but necessarily better. On the palate, the wine has a bitter-sweet taste, with some nice minerally notes. This wine is a good pair to shellfish and scallops. It also could be good with lightly dressed salads. There are not many D.O Valdeorras in the market, but a safe place to find one would be at any Terry’s Selection. Price starts at around P900/bottle retail.

These are three “must try” whites. While Spain has sadly produced countless uninteresting white wines made from the very inconsistent Macabeo (or Viura) to the “character-lacking” Airen, the Albariňo, Verdejo, and Godello grapes are all real blue-chip varietals. It will be just a matter of time before wine lovers, especially those from Asia, take notice of these wines. Soon we all can have a good alternative to a Chardonnay, and it is not a Moscato.

The author is the only Filipino member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy, and other wine related concerns, e-mail the author at wineprotege@gmail.com, or check his wine training website https://thewinetrainingcamp.wordpress.com/services/.