There’s more to Spain than Rioja, says Adam Lechmere – summer is the time to discover its fantastic array of white wines, from zippy albariño to the racy xarel-lo.
A recent wine trip took me across the Pyrénées, from Roussillon to Catalonia. As I crossed the border, it struck me how much bolder and more imaginative Spanish winemakers are, next to their French counterparts, when it comes to grape varieties. French winemakers are hamstrung by strict appellation rules, of course, but it’s an article of faith for many that they will use only indigenous grapes. In Catalonia they try anything. And while many of the varieties harnessed here are also native, winemakers will venture further afi eld if the urge takes them – they’ve been making excellent gewürztraminer in Somontano for years.
There’s also a strong revival movement in Spain. Torrontés fell into obscurity in Galicia but is now coming back. Treixadura, which makes a powerful, dense, creamy wine, is another to look out for, as is the acidic, racy xarel-lo of Catalonia. Spain’s wine scene is vibrant, and its style of white – aromatic, mineral, acidic – is absolutely of the moment. But Spanish whites don’t sell in the numbers you’d expect. Rioja is one culprit. Spain’s most successful wine region is so dominant that it tends to eclipse the 68 appellations around it.
‘We tend to associate Spain with heat; and red wine,’ Ben Henshaw, a Spanish wine importer, told me. ‘People are cautious about other regions.’
Add to that the fact that one of the better-known varieties, the viura of white Rioja, is traditionally bolstered with a good deal of oak, which can seem old-fashioned, and it’s easy to look elsewhere for zingy, zappy whites. Don’t. Spain is home to the zingiest, zappiest whites around – provided you know where to look.
It’s in Spain’s temperate northwest that some of the most interesting whites are made. Galicia’s climate is perfect for producing aromatic whites that burst with a spectrum of fruit, from citrus to tropical, but also, due to cooler nights and a decent amount of rain, with racy acidity.
Albariño is massively popular in Spain, and it’s a grape that seldom disappoints, delivering freshness, spice and minerality. It was brought to Spain from the Rhineland in the 12th century, and its punchy, spicy style can be similar in flavour profile to riesling, while its generous, creamy texture is more reminiscent of viognier. The best examples, like the Viña Taboexa from Rias Baixas below, have an exotic, spiced-pineapple zing that complements delicately hot Asian dishes and seafood.
Then there’s godello. Critic Jancis Robinson talks about its ‘obvious nobility’, and I know what she means. While albariño can be charming and beguiling, the best godello, grown in the slate of the northwest hills, adds a certain extra layer of minerality and complexity that raises it above mere charm. As with any wine, pair it with food from the region: godello’s mineral heft makes it a good match for scallops and other shellfish.
Lastly, I couldn’t talk about Spanish whites without a word on txakoli, the sprightly young white of the Basque country. This is the compulsory accompaniment to grilled sardines on the seafront at San Sebastián. It doesn’t travel well, but If you can find the Txakoli de Getaria Bengoetxe, snap it up. You couldn’t ask for a better summer’s evening aperitif.