An objectively flawed (it re-fermented in bottle), flabby wine that still manages to exude a certain charm due to its aromatic intensity. In a blind tasting I mistook it for an overripe Viognier due to its huge body and low acid.
Since the death of totalitarian Generalissimo Francisco Franco, wine appreciation and production in Spain has been on the rise. Spanish producers that didn’t exist even a decade ago are already creating well-regarded, remarkably tasty wines.
The wines from Rias Baixas, a picturesque coastal wine region in Northern Spain, are a perfect example. Rias Baixas burst on the global wine scene in 1998 and the region has quickly become known as a world-class producer of one particular grape variety: AlberiÃ±o.
Unlike most of the rest of Spain, Rias Baixas is cool and moist and has much in common with Oregon and other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Spaniards call it Green Spain, and because of the damp conditions vineyards are trellised high above the ground to promote air circulation and to help prevent mold and rot.
A fairly astonishing 94% of the vineyards in Rias Baixas are planted to AlbariÃ±o, and most good wines that are exported from there taste very much alike. From a marketing perspective, this is actually a great thing since it has created a consistent, recognizable brand for Rias Baixas not unlike New Zealand and their Sauvignon Blancs. If you’ve never had AlberiÃ±o, think of Viognier and a dash of Sauvignon Blanc on the nose, with lots of racy acidity.
Like Burgundy, most of the vineyards in Rias Baixas are tiny; between 1 and 5 acres. And also like Burgundy, this situation created a need for co-ops to spring up as a place for small farmers to vinify their grapes. Where Rias Baixas is different from Burgundy however, is that the best wines are coming from these large co-op wineries instead of individual small producers.
Almost all AlbariÃ±os are made using the same basic recipe: pick at around 22 Brix, crush and then cold soak in temperature controlled tanks for 2-3 days. Then ferment in tank with either native or cultured yeast. In some years, if the wine is particularly acidic, portions of the blend will go through malolactic fermentation to soften the wine up a bit. In recent years local winemakers have been experimenting with aging AlbariÃ±o in Galician and French oak, but none of this wine has yet made it into export markets.
Rias Baixas means “lower fjords” in Spanish, and the rugged coastline along Galicia has long been a hotbed of smuggling activity. First it was just tobacco. Then, during the 80s, it turned to cocaine. Organized crime moved in soon after, leading some to refer to Galicia as the “Sicily of Spain”.
Drug lords would buy large mansions, plant vineyards, and give lip service to being in the wine business. Wine growing gave them a patina of respectability. Predictably perhaps, their actions soon became so ostentatious – including courting the media – that they attracted the attention of the police. A crackdown on the cocaine kingpins followed soon after.
In 1995 Condes de Albarei, one of the largest co-ops in Rias Baixas with production of well over 1 million cases, bought the former home of one of those incarcerated drug lords. CdA turned the home into a state of the art winery with over 400 grower-partners, and repurposed 5% of the property into a drug rehabilitation center.
The grapes for Condes de Albarei come from the Salnes Valley. Clay soil dominates, and the AlberiÃ±o grapes are all hand harvested. The winemaker is Ana Martin.
Tasted blind, the wine was flabby and rich, and there was quite a bit of sparkle in the glass. The nose was still intact, and was actually quite nice, showing floral aromas and smells of stone fruits. It was obvious there was no oak and the finish was unremarkable, but I did make a note that the alcohol seemed high. Coupled with the heavy body and low acid, I felt fairly confident what I was drinking was an overripe varietal Viognier, or a Viognier blend.
After the reveal, I went back to the bottle and poured a fresh glass – the bubbles piled up like I was pouring Champagne. I threw a sample on my magnetic stirrer and agitated out the bubbles and took a pH reading. My meter read 4.16. Flabbiness confirmed.
Later, ETS lab tests showed a low level of titratable acidity (.4 g/100ml), the same alcohol level as reported on the label (12.22 %/vol ), low levels of free sulfur dioxide (14 ppm), and a color-metric analysis I performed showed very little malic acid.
Bottom line: it’s clear the wine underwent malolactic fermentation in the bottle since a large portion of the acid in an AlbariÃ±o is malic, and this particular bottle was missing it completely. Moreover if the re-fermentation had been driven by yeast, the alcohol by volume would have increased.
My blind tasting note regarding high alcohol was a result of the wine’s overall lack of balance and was probably also partly due to my own personal bias. Most of the wines I taste that are that flabby also have high levels of alcohol.
Which leads to a problem: if CdA truly is stabilizing and sterile filtering their wines, this secondary fermentation in bottle would never occur (that is, after all, the whole point of stabilization and filtering).
I’d advise consumers that if they find a similar issue with any bottles they buy that they report them to their wine shop. I’d also request that the wine shop owner alert CdA’s US importer CIV about the problem. Re-fermentation in bottle is a very serious flaw, and they need to know that it’s happening if they are going to figure out how to fix it.
Josh Hermsmeyer, 10-7-09
AlbariÃ±o: Spain’s hidden wine treasure, by W. Blake Gray
Albarino is in the air, by Tim Teichgraeber
Rias Baixas on Able Grape