Everything you need to know about albarino

Albarino is a dream match with seafood, such as these pan-fried smelt. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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Albarino is a dream match with seafood, such as these pan-fried smelt. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Despite the different spellings and expressions of wine styles, as far as one universally beloved wine grape is concerned, all roads lead to the sea. I’m talking about the renowned white grape variety albarino, known as alvarinho in Portugal. Glancing at a standard computer keyboard, one might wonder if the divergence was simply due to the lackadaisical work of a fat-fingered typist long ago. Look at where the “b” and “v” are, and then where the “n” and “h” are. Just saying.

Really, if you want to geek out a little, “b” and “v” represent the same phoneme in northern Portugal and Spain (which is to say, they make roughly the same sound), and the “h” is a silent interloper — “nh” is a common digraph, two successive letters that amount to a single sound, in Portuguese. But let’s not get too caught up in linguistics when we’re talking about good wine. Also, don’t spend too much time trying to get to the bottom of whether albarino hails from the autonomous region of Galicia in Spain, or across the border in northern Portugal. One thing you would be well served to log in your memory, though, is that albarino is one of the best wines on earth for seafood.

When you daydream of chilled, saltwater-kissed raw oysters on the half-shell, spindly crab legs, curvy tentacles or perfectly cooked portions of flaky white fish, save room in that dream for a glass of fragrant, fruity and dry albarino. Considering the grape’s two most-successful areas, both of them near the Atlantic Ocean, is the first clue that this prized white grape variety might be a good match for the fruits of the sea.

The albarino grape is thick-skinned — not as in the quality that keeps tech support workers from hanging up on angry callers, but literally. This skin translates to expressive aromatics, and even before those aromatics show up, before the grapes are turned into wine, those formidable outer layers protect the grapes from the rainy weather conditions of northwestern Spain and northern Portugal. Regardless of what side of the border the grape variety was born on, this general region is most certainly its ancestral home. It is a rugged land of lush greenness and an abundance of precipitation.

When the grape is called albarino and made into a varietal wine in the Galician wine region of Rias Baixas, it can offer pleasant briny evidence of the nearby Atlantic, along with varying combinations of floral notes, citrus, stone and tropical fruits, apple, pear, minerality, a touch of bitterness or nuttiness, plus zingy acidity and mouth-filling medium body. This is not a wimpy wine by anyone’s definition; in addition to the abundance of aromas and flavors, albarinos can routinely reach 12.5 percent alcohol or more.

Albarino is sometimes blended with loureiro or treixadura, and can be bottle-ageable, often for several years or more. The downside? There really isn’t one, except maybe that prices have crept up. Even so, it’s not too hard to find good albarino that won’t put you behind on your utilities.

The Spaniards like to splash the word albarino across their labels. This, of course, is a departure from the more usual Old World tradition of listing only the place where the wine is from, rather than a varietal name or a varietal name and a place name, on labels. It is a welcome departure for those of us who live on this side of the Atlantic, since it makes it easier for us to find the wine we want, especially when it’s time to plan a seafood feast.

Across the border, in northern Portugal, alvarinho is the major player in the light, tangy, fresh and often slightly effervescent wine named for the Vinho Verde region. This wine is meant to be drunk young, as an aperitif or (naturally) with seafood. Its name translates to “green wine,” but that has nothing to do with alvarinho’s color. In fact, most Vinho Verde has little or no color. Here, green refers to the wine’s youthfulness. In Vinho Verde, alvarinho can be blended with avesso, azal, arinto, loureiro and trajadura (which is treixadura in Spain).

Most Vinho Verdes land somewhere between 9 and 12 percent alcohol, but some can easily inch up beyond that. So be careful if you are guzzling one of those bottlings as you chase a ball around in the sun. Because, in case you weren’t aware, Vinho Verde is definitely guzzle-able. And that fizz that some of them have? It’s not from fermentation; it’s from a shot of carbon dioxide. Even when the fizz is there, though, it’s often so subtle that you might not even take notice of it.

Some other parts of the world have caught up to the green fertile regions of the Atlantic-coastal regions of the Iberian peninsula, at least where an interest in albarino is concerned. Once not commonly grown outside of Spain and Portugal, albarino can now be found in Washington, Oregon, California and New Zealand, among other places. Besides being well-suited to damp cool weather, albarino can also stand a little heat.

Regardless of where it comes from or how it is spelled, count on albarino being a lively, tangy wine that makes for a great apertif. Its natural palate-cleansing acidity ensures that you will continue to be zinged and refreshed all through your pre-dinner hour, until the very first bites of food come out. And it almost goes without repeating — almost — that in its best possible use, albarino is a beautiful food wine, destined for great flavor synergy with just about anything that once called the sea home.