New Wave Whites

Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

New Wave Whites: Spain and Portugal's Best White Wines

Contents

In a sip

Spanish and Portuguese white wines are having more than just a 'moment'; these dynamic regions are making some of the most exciting, food-friendly and summer-ready white wines around. Albarinho/alvarinho(in Spanish/Portuguese) – same grape, different name – is the bi-regional style that you'll see gracing the wine lists of any tapas and seafood restaurant worth its grapes right now.

Principal grapes: Spain – albariño, macabeo, verdejo, garnacha blanco, treixadura Portugal – alvarinho, avesso, loureiro, arinto, fernão pires and verdelho

The taste: Imagine a fresh sea breeze blowing through an orchard on a scorching summer day: fresh, fruity, aromatic and often with a bracing hint of salinity.

Eat with: Iberian whites take fish dishes to a delicious new level, as the freshness and subtlety found here won't overpower seafood. Try: ceviche-style dishes, Spanish-style octopus and shellfish, or multitude other seafood feasts. Pork and chicken dishes also receive a welcome upgrade when paired with these enigmatic Iberians.


Riding the New Wave: The Rise of Spain and Portugal's White Wines

David Williams

Wine writer – and Iberian wine enthusiast – David Williams explores why, when it comes to the white wines of Spain and Portugal, the best is yet to come.

For years, when discussion turned to the finest wines of Portugal and Spain, white wine never really came up. Fortified wines – sherry, Port, Madeira – and red wines (above all Rioja), were what found their way into collectors' cellars. Whites – often oxidized and over-oaked, sometimes just thin and mean – were what happened on holiday or, in the case of the sweet-sour prickles of old-style, supermarket Vinho Verde, when your mum came round for dinner.

Not any more. Of all the many changes that have taken place in Iberian wine since both halves of the peninsula emerged from decades of dreary dictatorship in the mid-1970s (and particularly since the 1990s), it's the rise of white wines that has been perhaps the most dramatic of all. No longer the poor relations, white winemakers in Spain and Portugal are responsible for some of the most attractive, original, aromatic and evocative wines around, with a France-like array of appellations (or DOs), flavours, grape varieties and styles.

Green Lands – albariño, verdejo and Vinho Verde

The Duoro

One of the engines of this development can be found in the top northwestern corner of the peninsula, where Galicia on the Spanish side runs down across the Minho River into Vinho Verde in Portugal. The two regions share a certain winemaking DNA: thanks to the influence of the nearby Atlantic, the climate is cooler and wetter than in other parts of Spain and Portugal, and the rolling green landscapes are far from the stereotypical dusty plains and bush vines that most of us associate with Iberian vineyards.

The breakout star grape variety here is undoubtedly albariño from the Galician region of Rías Baixas, a style that has charmed the world with its gloriously easy-drinking unoaked combination of fleshy apricot fruit, white flowers and a fresh saline quality that both calls to mind the sea spray of the Atlantic coastal beaches and demands to be matched with the abundant local shellfish. The Society's own Exhibition Rías Baixas Albariño 2016 offers a textbook introduction to the style; while the latest (2016) vintage from the original and still, in my view, best albariño producer in the region, Palacio de Fefiñanes, is a quicksilver treat.

The same grape variety is also a key ingredient in the modern renaissance of Vinho Verde, both as part of the region's many good-value fruit-salad blends and, in the area around Monção and Melgaço, in gloriously brisk, racy solo outings, labeled with the Portuguese name for the variety, alvarinho, from producers such as Adega de Monção and Anselmo Mendes.

But it's far from the only white grape variety making fine wines in the Iberian northwest. Vinho Verde's loureiro has a delightful bay-leafiness and subtle floral quality when made in solo bottlings (again look out for Anselmo Mendes' version). And many critics rate godello from the Galician regions of Monterrei, Valdeorras and Ribeira Sacra, even higher than albariño. At its simplest, it has a fish-friendly juicy lemon and floral zippiness; aged in oak or with some time in contact with the lees, it can offer, in the hands of a skilled winemaker such as Rafael Palacios, Burgundian levels of complexity for enjoying with pork and creamy sauces.

Drive a couple of hours southeast from Galicia, and you get to the Rueda district in Castilla y Leon, the home of verdejo. Strikingly, pungently aromatic in a manner that recalls the more exuberantly tropical-fruited end of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, unoaked verdejo works well with mildly spiced South East Asian cuisine, but is just as good on its own or with a bowl of green olives as an easy summer-garden quaffer.

And no white-wine tour of northern Iberia would be complete without a stop in the Basque coastal city of San Sebastián, where pintxos bars serve the tongue-tingling, bone-dry, slightly spritzy txacoli made from the tongue-twisting grape variety hondarribi zuria with octopus, anchovy or bacalao.

Rioja and the Douro – viura, white Rioja, bical and arinto

Douro Vineyard

When it comes to red wine, Rioja and the Douro are by far the biggest names in their respective countries. But if black grapes dominate the vineyards of both these great names of European wine, white wines have always been a part of the mix.

Paella

Usually based on the undemonstrative viura grape variety, the traditional white Rioja recipe called, like red Rioja, for long ageing in oak barrels and bottle before release. It's a method that can, in the hands of the skilled ultra-traditionalists at López de Heredia, produce wines of extraordinary golden complexity. Too often, however, the process led to something dull and lifeless, which is why modern white Rioja producers have changed their approach, either eschewing oak entirely, or, in the case of Bodega Muga, applying it much more subtly, bringing an engaging creaminess to bright orchard fruit in a blanco that works so well with simply grilled pork chops or, as The Wine Society buyers suggest, paella.

Greater finesse and more sensible applications of oak are also the hallmark of the many fine white wines being made in the beautiful, rugged Douro Valley. Like the red wines (and Ports), the best Douro whites tend to draw on a cocktail of often-inter-planted old vineyards, using some or all of a mix that includes gouveio, malvasia fina, moscatel, rabigato and viosinho. Unoaked, these can be surprisingly sprightly and aromatic for a region where summer temperatures regularly touch 40°C, while the more serious styles, such as Quinta de Porrais Sete Vales, combine the aromatic characters with flinty minerals and pithy citrus.

Much the same can be said of the white wines of fellow Central Portuguese regions the Dão and Bairrada, which offer a mix of both aromatic youthful easy-drinkers and more serious gastronomic, cellarworthy styles. Encruzado is the Dão's flagship white variety, from which leading producers such as Quinta dos Roques coax a seam of luminous mineral acidity and tangy grapefruit citrus. In Bairrada, meanwhile, star winemaker Filipa Pato is a name to look out for, her FP a charming summer breezy combination of bical and arinto.

Catalonia – Cava, garnacha blanca and Xarel.lo

Iberian Prawn

Outside the fiercely independent region, Catalonia's vinous reputation largely rests on the affordable fizz of Cava and the monumental reds of Priorat and neighbouring Montsant. But the region's growers have also developed a knack for distinctive whites, which are just starting to find their way into the UK. Among the wines to look out for are those made from very old vines of Xarel.lo, the most characterful of the traditional trio of local varieties used to make Cava, in the hills of Penedès. Foodie wines par excellence, light, dry Xarel.lo whites are all about the texture, a chalky-mineral quality that is thrilling with a plate of vibrantly pink Palamos prawns or fish cooked with fennel.

No less interesting are blends and single varietal wines made using garnacha blanca, which bring a little more peachy flesh and mouthfilling richness alongside the mineral freshness in wines such as the delightful Jaspi Blanc, from Catalonia's most southerly DO, Terra Alta, with its delicate wild herb and white flower notes.

The best of the rest

If the greatest concentration of great modern Iberian white winemaking is found in the more northerly regions of Spain and Portugal, intriguing bottles from talented winemakers can be found all over the peninsula.

The heat of Portugal's southerly Alentejo, for example, may not seem the most likely source of vibrant white wines, but the redoubtable Herdade do Esporão, led by the influential Australian winemaker David Baverstock, makes superbly rich, distinctive whites from local varieties such as antão vaz, perrum and roupeiro. Similarly, southeastern Spanish DOs such as Yecla and Valencia can be a surprisingly good source of budget, dry whites, while outstanding wines made from previously unheralded varieties and places such as Albilla Blanca in Spain's Manchuela and Fonte Cal in Portugal's Beiras interior suggest, excitingly, that the best of Iberian white wine is yet to come.

David Williams
July 2017

Read about our buyer Joanna Locke's trip to Portugal to assess the 2016 whites >

Read more about Vinho Verde here >

How to pronounce these tongue-twisting grape names >