California winemakers and retail data indicate a slight uptick in interest in more balanced, medium-bodied and less-oaked white wines. Consumers are starting to figure out that bigger is not necessarily better, and balanced wines accompany food more appropriately -- something the French and Italians figured out generations ago.
A recent tasting of Spanish albarinos and a lone Portuguese alvarinho (Portuguese spelling of the same grape) brought home the potential for this grape to take its place as a go-to wine for Americans averse in over-oak chardonnay. The pleasant citrus and ripe fruit notes with subtle minerality are a delight for pairing with virtually any seafood dishes. It also is the perfect accompaniment to assorted appetizers, especially during the upcoming outdoor grilling season.
Albarino grapes are primarily grown in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Galicia's growing conditions are influenced by the cooler marine climate from the Atlantic Ocean, which produces the characteristic citrus notes and bracing acidity. Albarino grown in more inland areas produces fruit with more stone fruit elements and less acidity.
Rias Baixas is the primary growing region in Galicia for albarino. Alvarinho from Portugal is mainly from the Vinho Verde region north of Oporto, where it is bottled as a varietal and also blended into making vinho verde.
The albarinos we tasted were from the Rias Baixas region of Spain and all hailed from the 2015 and 2016 vintages.
The 2015 vintage typically offers a bit more acidity and less ripe fruit than the 2016 version. However, both vintages produced agreeable wines that are worth considering. Prices are approximate.
Nora Albarino Rias Baixas DO 2015 ($19). Very quaffable white wine with bright citrus, tropical fruit notes and good acidity.
Burgans Albarino Rias Baixas DO 2015 ($13). From the fabulous Eric Solomon portfolio, this brilliant albarino has tropical fruit and peach flavors with a dash of mineral.
Pazo Senorans Albarino Rias Baixas DO 2016 ($20). The riper fruit of the 2016 vintage was apparent. Very well balanced and pleasing.
Adega Pazos de Lusco “Lusco” Albarino Rias Baixas D.O. 2015 ($25). Very nice thirst quenching albarino, displaying melon, and citrus elements with typical bright acidity.
Turonia Albarino Rias Baixas D.O. 2015 ($21). The ripe pear notes pair with a softer very agreeable lighter softer acidity Very drinkable by itself.
Quinto da Raza Dom Diogo Alvarinho Minho Portugal 2016 ($16). The lone Portuguese entry in our tasting, this selection presented a nice minerality and riper fruit than the Spanish albarinos and a pleasant creamy finish. Of this group of albarinos, this was our favorite.
With all the wines from which to choose, we often neglect syrah. Perhaps it’s because we think first of shiraz, those fruit-forward and often insipid knockoffs from Australia. Okay, we all know Australia produces some incredibly dense and complicated syrah, but many are way too frivolous and ghastly overripe for us.
We happily reunited with the grape variety in a blind tasting among friends. These versions were from California and demonstrated that the grape can lead to some rich and complex wines.
High on the list was 2014 Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40). Like its pinot noirs and chardonnays, Ramey’s syrah is made with care and attention to detail. It is balanced and more like a Northern Rhone syrah than an Australian shiraz. More classic in style with earthy, meaty aromas and a flavor profile that strikes the unami element. Dark berry flavors with a dash of olives and pepper. Ver supple and long in the finish.
Two other favorites were the 2014 Dierberg Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Star Lane Vineyard Syrah ($40) and the 2013 Donelan Sonoma County Cuvee Christine Syrah ($48).
The Dierberg showed off generous and forward red berry aromas, fresh raspberry and plum flavors with fine tannins. This wine will age but shows well know when paired with barbecued meats.
The Donelan syrah was more complex with effusive plum and cassis flavors and a hint of dark chocolate. Balanced but with acidity and balances a lush mouthfeel. Made entirely of syrah, it is a bold version that can be enjoyed now or aged. Donelan makes an incredible Obsidian Vineyard Syrah that will set you back $105, but as we say, it's incredible.
The fabled Rothschild family has been an icon in Bordeaux for centuries, but much of its Lafite-Rothschild is out of price range for most consumers. But the family makes more than first-growth bordeaux. Its Barons de Rothschild brand is focused on reasonably priced, accessible French wines. Now comes the Legende label that introduces a line of reserve wines in the Barons de Rothschild portfolio. These wines get less oak exposure and are meant for current consumption or short-term cellaring.
There are reserves in four Bordeaux appellations: Bordeaux, Bordeaux Blanc, Medoc and Paulliac. We liked the Legende Medoc 2015 ($27) and the Legende Paulliac 2014 ($55). Both are blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The latter wine is particularly stunning with spice aromas, generous dark fruit flavors, fine tannins and a hint of licorice.
Clos du Val Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($30). This not-so-simple sauvignon blanc has lots going for it: a generous and soft mouthfeel, balanced acidity, layered citrus and grapefruit flavors.
Godelia Godello-Dona Bianco 2015 ($17). We are always looking for unique wines and were delighted to discover this gem from the Bierzo appellation in Spain. The godello and dona bianco old-vine grapes create a wine that has the rich texture of chardonnay but the crisp acidity and mineral qualities of sauvignon blanc. We tasted stone fruit and citrus.
Paraduxx Napa Valley Proprietary White 2016 ($32). The dominant grape in this racy white blend is viognier, which accounts for the wine's enticing aromas of apple and orange blossom. The rest of the blend – chardonnay, roussanne, and marsanne – provide additional aromatics, texture and peach/pear flavors.
Frei Brothers Sonoma Reserve Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($27). A good value in the reserve cabernet category, this wine is blended with a bit of merlot and petite sirah to create a well-rounded, delicious wine with forward dark-fruit flavors and soft tannins.