Beyond Rosé: Northern Spain’s White Wines

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Another summer is upon us, and the rosé craze seems only to be getting stronger. There’s no denying that rosés—the good ones, anyway—are terrific summer beverages. But hot weather also calls out for crisp white wines, and there is arguably no better source for those these days than northern Spain.   I’m referring to the area from Galicia, an autonomous region in northwestern Spain, to the Basque country, a 400-mile coastline with a number of compelling indigenous grapes, including albariño, godello, treixadura, and hondarribi zuri.   Just a quarter-century ago, this once-vibrant winemaking region was a viticultural wasteland, left moribund under the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco. The Spanish wine industry began to recover after democracy was restored in 1976, but change came slower to remote, hardscrabble northern Spain. The region even debated whether to uproot its albariño and godello grapes in favor of better-known “international” varieties such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.   Fortunately, respect for tradition triumphed when winemakers recognized that local grapes produced sensational wines and could stand out in an increasingly crowded global marketplace. European subsidies helped regional producers preserve older vineyards, plant new ones, and upgrade their equipment and facilities, resulting in cleaner, more stable wines.   About a decade ago, the wine cognoscenti started to notice the region’s revival, and albariño started catching on with sommeliers and wine enthusiasts in places like New York and London. A thick-skinned variety that tends towards brisk acidity and low alcohol, the grape yields wines that evoke citrus, tropical, and orchard fruits (think peaches). Some albariños can be a little tutti-frutti, but the best ones are crisp, zesty, and go down dangerously easy, particularly when paired with seafood.   In recent years, Spain has become a lodestar for the culinary world, and no place more so than Basque country’s San Sebastian, home to more Michelin-starred eateries per capita than anyplace else in the world. And as food lovers have awakened to the pleasures of Basque cuisine, they’ve also discovered a distinctive wine called Txakolina or Txakoli, made from the hondarribi zuri grape. With slightly briny notes, these bracingly crisp wines also pair beautifully with seafood and have a remarkably low alcohol content.   Galicia, a mountainous area known as “Green Spain” – its damp climate resembles that of the British Isles – has emerged more recently as the epicenter of northern Spain’s viticultural renaissance. Rias Baixas, an inland appellation, is one of the most remote and rustic wine regions in all of Europe, with vineyards so steep that mechanical harvesting is not an option — winemakers and pickers use ladders to get around.   The Galician grape godello nearly went extinct in the 1970s, but is the new darling of both wine writers and sommeliers. Some compare godellos to white Burgundies, which are made from chardonnay grapes. That’s true, to a point. While the better godellos have the pronounced mineral character and vibrant acidity typical of white Burgundies, they don’t exhibit quite the same complexity. But who cares? They go swimmingly with all kinds of summer dishes—grilled fish, grilled chicken, salads—and also make for terrific, thirst-quenching aperitifs. Whichever variety you choose, northern Spain provides some of the most pleasurable drinking to be had at this time of year.   Mike’s Picks:   Pedralonga Albariño: With its crisp flavors and piercing minerality, this wine is consistently delicious. Pedralonga also produces an albariño called Vendetta, but only in very small quantities. If you find a bottle, buy it!   Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas: Do Ferreiro is the best-known albariño producer, and for good reason. The Cepas Vellas, made from vines that are said to be 150 years old, is a complex, sensational quaff.   Valdesil Godello Sobre Lias: Valdesil’s godellos showcase the grape in all its racy glory. The Sobre Lias is a sublime cuvée, with terrific mineral and herbal notes to balance out the fruit.   Brezo Blanco: Gregory Rodriguez, one of the most talented winemakers in Spain, started the Brezo label. His Blanco is a superb blend of 80 percent godello and 20 percent doña blanca, another native Galician grape.   Godeval Godello: This outstanding wine is taut, sinewy, and bursting with citrus flavors and a faint echo of tropical fruits. With a hint of lemongrass on the nose, lots of dry mineral extract across the palate, and a long, delicious finish, this is nothing short of a really impressive wine.   Ameztoi Txakolina: Ameztoi is one of the standard bearers of the Basque wine industry, producing archetypal Txakolinas—lithe, slightly effervescent wines with an unmistakable oceanic twang. It’s hard to think of anything that could be better to bring to a clambake. And forgive me for succumbing to rosé mania, but it would be a disservice not to mention that Ameztoi also makes a fantastic Txakolina rosé.   Michael Steinberger is the wine writer for Men’s Journal. His latest book, The Wine Savant: A Guide to the New Wine Culture (W.W. Norton), came out in 2013.

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