IT'S one of those trick quiz questions: what is the difference between Albari¤o and Alvarinho? Answer: nothing - they are different names for the same grape variety, known as Albari¤o in Spain and Alvarinho across the border in northern Portugal.
Albari¤o is a high-quality white grape that is planted in Portugal's Vinho Verde region and also in the Rças Baxias province of Spanish Galicia. Although Albari¤o is rarely found outside this region, its origins lie elsewhere and, as with most grape varieties, they are in dispute. One version has the grape originating in Burgundy, while the other claims that it is Germanic, coming from the steep slopes of the Rhine Valley.
Albari¤o is well adapted to the relative cool and damp of these green areas of Spain and Portugal, as its thick skin makes it resistant to rot. The downside is that each grape produces little juice. Wines made from this variety tend to be higher in alcohol (around 12-13%) than Vinho Verdes made from other grape varieties. Albari¤os can also often also be high in acidity.
Jancis Robinson, in her Guide to Wine Grapes, estimates that there are only some 2,000 hectares of Albari¤o planted in Spain and Portugal. Unfortunately, as the wines are fashionable in Spain and Portugal and also low yielding, Albari¤o tends to be quite expensive and in rather short supply.
This was certainly one of the most comprehensive tastings of Albari¤o ever held in this country. Certainly none of the panel had previously had the opportunity to taste more than three or four at one time.
The tasting was held at Moro, a fashionable Spanish- and Moorish-influenced restaurant in Exmouth Market, London. The tasters were led by Caterer wine editor Fiona Sims and wine writer Jim Budd. Also on the panel were Mark Sainsbury, a co-owner of Moro, Sam Clarke, the chef at Moro, Luciana Girotto, sommelier at the Halkin hotel, London, and Francis Pigott, manager of the wine shop at Terence Conran's Bluebird venture, also in London.
Sixteen wines were tasted: 15 came from Spain, with a solitary example from Portugal. There are very few Portuguese Alvarinhos imported into the UK. Five of the wines came from the 1997 vintage; nine from the 1996 and two from the 1995. Prices per bottle (before vat) ranged from £4.84 up to £16.67.
Overall the standard was impressive. Only three wines were unclassified and one of those was corked. "The general standard was really high, with some complex wines," said Mark Sainsbury. "I preferred the 1996 to the 1997. For me, Albari¤o definitely improves in bottle." Francis Pigott agreed on the high quality. "There were two distinct styles: one minerally and nutty; the other was creamy and floral." Pigott also preferred the 1996s. "They need time to fatten out and bring out their flavours." "I found the quality more variable - some were very good," said Girotto.
"It's a marvel what people with one grape variety can do," said Clark. "Some were green with an almost sour quality, others were floral and fruity. The best had the elements of the two styles."
As there were such variations in style, the panel would recommend them with very different foods. The zingy, youthful 1997s would make good aperitifs. Pigott said the more floral styles would be good as an aperitif or with a very delicate fish dish, perhaps. "I would serve the more mineral style with food. The richer examples, such as Pazo de Barrantes, would go well with chicken or baked vegetables, especially fennel and leeks."
As we tasted only two examples from 1995, it was difficult to tell whether Albari¤o ages well. The Pazo de Se¤orans Seleccion Anada would clearly keep for another year at least, while the other 1995 was tired and oxidised.
In general, it is better not to keep Albari¤o longer than two years. Many of the merchants contacted for this tasting were just moving on to the 1997s. Some of the panel preferred the zesty, youthful bite of the 1997s, while others had a preference for the softer, more mellow 1996s.
With the current popularity of Spanish food and an increasing number of wine drinkers prepared to try unusual wines, ma¤ana should be good for Albari¤o. "I would put it on the Halkin list, if the price was right," said Girotto. n