Pruning albarino vines on one of Do Ferreiro's vineyards
Albarino has, relatively quickly, not only become one of Spain's most famous whites inside the country, but also one of its more successful exports. Not bad considering that the Rias Baixas D.O. is only approximately 25 years old. Albarino vineyards are generally cultivated en parral, or trained on granite posts where the vines then climb over head at around 7 feet high. It's cool to see, and not a very common method of vine training. Argentina is known to have vines trained this way, particularly Torrontes. A tactic to encourage good ventilation in this occasionally damp growing region, the one possible downside is that Albarino is a vigorous grower, and one must prune accordingly and/or carry out green harvests during the growing season to limit yields somewhat. Soils are typically sandy, with granite bedrock below, and lots of grasses, weeds and plant growth between the rows. One common misconception about the region is its Atlantic influence and resulting climate. Yes, this means that there is plenty of rain, and a cooling influence from the ocean during evenings. However, summers here are hot - as they are in nearly all parts of Spain (except perhaps for apple growing country in Asturias and Pais Vasco, and Txakoli country in Pais Vasco). Temperatures around 40 deg. (about 100 degrees fahrenheit) are common during the season. Rain is not typically frequent from June through August, maybe it rains a few times a month.
I visited four producers in Rias Baixas (two of which are discussed in this post), each with their own ideas regarding best viticultural practices and winemaking, and each with their own styles. It was an interesting and educational exercise.
I met with owner Juan Gil (no relation to the Juan Gil of Jumilla fame) to chat about his winery, which is located right in the Praza d'Fefinans in Cambados, the "birthplace of the Albarino grape" and my home based during my stay in the region. Fefinanes is the oldest producer of Albarino, and also I believe the first one to bottle wine. They do not own any vines, but instead purchase fruit every year from the same 60 growers, almost all of which are located right in the Cambados district - thought to be amongst the best terroirs for Albarino grapes. Juan explained to me the importance of having access to fruit in different vineyards, some at lower elevations closer to the sea, and others a bit higher up and further inland. It's a hedge based on climate: warmer and drier vintages favor vineyards more proximate to the sea, cooler and damper ones tend to be kinder to vineyards a bit further from the ocean and higher up the hills. Winemaking here is straightforward, with native yeasts preferred, though occasionally neutral yeasts are added to speed things along. Fermenation is in stainless steel tanks. Malolactic (though it would probably struggle to naturally occur due to the very high malic acid and low pH) is blocked with sulphur. After filtering, the wine is typically bottled in February, and additional bottlings will occur as needed through June.
These are classic Albarinos, with rich yellow stone fruits that occasionally go appley as well. There is a noticeable sea spray salinity as well that reveals itself with a bit of air. I was lucky to try not only the young 2013 and the 2012, but also a 2009 that was showing very well. Good albarino should improve with bottle age for at least 5 years, and likely much longer for the top notch bottlings. Also, I tasted the III ano, which is a bottling that is in the tank on its lees for 3 years. 2010 is the current release, though they will soon be bottling 2012. With a pungent, ruby red grapefruit aromatic profile, then shifting to apples, the flavor profile also suggests grapefruit, with intense apricot flavors as well. Fantastic stuff, which we will likely bring in soon so keep an eye out. To prove the track record of this wine to age beautifully, Gil treated us to a bottle of 2007 III, which was so mineral and intense, a truly excellent white.
Gerardo Mendez is rightfully seen as one of the guru's of Albarino production. Not just for the consistency of his production, but also for his command of viticultural knowledge and generosity lending a hand to others both in the region and elsewhere in Galicia. Do Ferreiro, and the majority of its vines, are located in Meano, a few towns over from Cambados. The first vineyard you will see when visiting Do Ferreiro is the famous "Cepas Vellas" vineyard. Located in front of the family adega, with ocean in full view, these vines are pre-phylloxera, incredibly old (300 years according to Gerardo), and massive. There are about 450 of them, trained en parral, yielding about 5 kilos per vine (which seems like a lot, until you remember the size and training of these vines). Gerardo practices organic viticulture. He does not compost, simply opting to plow every year, cutting the green growth between the rows and tilling it under. He is 100% dedicated to his vines, which apparently is likely where you'll find him at any given time of the year. The same goes for his son, Manuel, who was pruning when we viewed another one of the family's vineyards a bit higher up in the hills. Gerardo emphasizes the importance of good pruning, careful vine training, and green harvests (three per year are typical) to maintain yields and produce healthy, fully ripe grapes.
Winemaking here also is straightforward. Harvest the grapes, cool them down, de-stem and press, keep the must very cool, and slowly ferment with their own yeast. Sulphur is added to block malolactic. Keep the wine in tank until February, March or so and bottle (though I suspect our bottlings are typically a bit later, given the timing of US releases and perhaps the importer's preference for extra time on the lees in tank?) Do Ferreiro's wines are perhaps the most mineral, the most austere upon release. They are a little more linear than Fefinanes. While tasting different components of what will become the 2013 Do Ferreiro, a challenging vintage that Gerardo is proud of as he waited out the rains before harvesting, it was interesting to hear Gil's theory on the importance of blending sites echoed by Mendez. To that point, we tasted wine from sandier vineyards located in locations a bit closer to the Umia River, which was all delicious yellow fruit, with minerality but a more forward quality. Then we tasted wine from the Meano vineyards, which was clearly more austere, mineral driven and citric. A notable lime flavor, Gerardo commented, for these wines. The resulting blend of these two was a complete, balanced wine, which undoubtedly shows how strong a vintage this will be for Do Ferreiro. I cannot wait for it to hit our shelves! Of course there is the Cepas Vellas, which we tasted as well and while it's impressive, this is always a wine that is so chock full of fruit in its youth, so primary, that I always appreciate it more after some time in bottling, when the distinctive minerality reveals itself. Finally, we tasted Do Ferreiro "en barrica," a single 500l Allier barrel (no toast) of Do Ferreiro. It was strict, less expressive and perhaps a bit less fresh, less immediate. Gerardo commented that this was always the opinion of his US importer, Andre Tamers. And, while he agrees, he assures me that after 8 months in the barrel, the wine tells a much different story.
Currently, we carry these wines from Fefinanes and Do Ferreiro (do stay tuned for new bottlings and releases, though!)