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Albariño takes root on the West Coast

Albariño takes root on the West Coast

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For anyone gazing at the sight of some 40 wines being poured at the second annual Festival of Albariño held in 2017 in Paso Robles, it was clear this Spanish varietal is trending.

“Alabriño is on the verge of being a standout wine from this region,” declared Stewart McLennan, the Paso Robles-based Australian winemaker and co-founder of the popular Garagiste movement that champions artisanal wineries.

Alan Kinne, the veteran winemaker in Paso Robles said, “I think it’s better than Viognier.” The director of winemaking at CaliPaso, Kinne originally planted Albariño in Virginia back in 1996, followed by a small test plot in Calistoga. He brought these initial cuttings back from his travels to Galicia in northwest Spain and to Northern Portugal, both home to this varietal.

“I went there three winters in a row and got the cuttings from several of the best wineries,” said Kinne, regarded as an Albariño trailblazer. The thousands of cuttings were shipped to and cleared customs in Virginia, he noted, before the cuttings found their way to California.

Albariño gathered momentum when in 2000 Kinne planted this variety in Edna Valley’s Jack Ranch along the Central Coast, cuttings of which were taken by the Niven family for its historic Paragon vineyards, a leading grower of Albariño in California with some 50 acres planted.

“We are 5.4 miles from the ocean so it makes sense for us to plant it at Paragon,” said Scott Williams, viticulturist at Tangent Winery, which is part of the Niven Family Wine Estates portfolio. Tangent was among the 26 participants gathered at the festival that drew vintners mostly from the Central Coast with a handful from Napa and Sonoma and, the new hotbed of Albariño, Lodi.

Launched in 2016, the festival was the brainchild of Welshman Damian Grindley, who brought together like-minded winemakers passionate about Albariño.

“But now it’s coming to its own,” said Grindley. “Nowhere have you seen so many Albariño producers under one roof in the country,” said the elated winemaker, who co-founded Brecon Estate winery in Paso Robles in 2012 with a focus on the world-class varieties available in the region.

The zesty crisp white wine is native to Spain and Portugal as the primary grape of Spain’s Rias Baixas and Portugal’s Vinho Verde regions. Now this grape has found a comfortable home on the Central Coast, specifically in the Edna Valley AVA where it has taken a foothold. It was Santa Barbara County winemaker Bryan Babcock of his eponymous winery who was among the pioneers to have planted this grape in 1992, followed by Luisa Lindquist of Verdad Winery also in the Santa Barbara area.

Exuding aromas of grapefruit and pineapple, the minerally-driven, zesty wine makes for an ideal summer drink or an aperitif. Here along the Central Coast, Albariño’s mouth-watering acidity and brininess combine with citrus flavors is a match made in heaven with coastal bounty.

“It’s a perfect marriage with Central Coast seafood culture,” Grindley said. “In the same way, like sauvignon blanc took its own expression in New Zealand, I’m wondering if Albariño is doing that on the Central Coast.”

Over time, the wine’s popularity has grown in California so that the two-acre planting of Albariño at the turn of the century has expanded to more than 250 acres. In fact, there is more Albariño grown in California than Marsanne, a popular white Rhône variety. Yet Albariño is still in its evolution stage in the New World.

“A lot of people are still experimenting to fine tune what the style is,” Grindley said. The style is across the board in the Central Coast, showing a broad spectrum of flavors and expressing characteristics of both cooler and warmer regions.

From the 40-some wines represented at the festival, two distinctively different styles were evident: one expressed bright acidity while the other emphasizes a rich mouthfeel.

So, are we developing our own California style?

“You’re already seeing a New World style,” Grindley said. “The California style is higher in alcohol compared to Spain and that changes fruit balance.”

California winemakers are harvesting grapes with higher brix and some are aging in oak. But that’s not going to be mainstream, according to Grindley.

“It’s got such wonderful varietal crispness and aromatics that when you start putting oak that gets lost,” Grindley said. Another difference is that the acid in the fruit is not as aggressive here compared to the variety in Spain and Portugal. “And we have more hang time,” he said.

Scott Williams explained that Edna Valley’s cooler climate lowers the pH and allows for a longer growing season so aromatics are preserved. “That’s why there’s no barrel fermentation, which puts too much vanilla in the wine,” Williams said of Tangent’s stainless steel tank fermentation. “We have been experimenting with the stone egg fermentation which allows oxygen without the oak influence.”

Indeed, the Tanget Albariño is deliciously nuanced with apricot and white peach flavors while maintaining its minerality and brininess.

Josh Pierce, on the other hand, observed that “there’s no formula that says Albariño has to be austere.” Founder of Pierce Family Vineyards from Monterey County’s warmer San Antonio Valley, the winemaker contends that at its best Albariño has minerality and acidity at its core. “But it can also produce wines with a hint of exotic,” he added.

Adam Lazarre of Lazare Wines in Paso Robles is mystified that it’s taken this long for the public to catch on to a wine he calls “a great alternative to both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Albariño takes on many forms. It can be thin and aromatic or floral with oak; that’s what I love about it.”

Lazarre’s vinification style is extended sur lee with no secondary fermentation, and his 2016 Albariño reflects the lush honeydew character laced with notes of key lime pie.

Chris Cameron, an international winemaker with experience in Australia, Italy, France and Turkey and currently winemaker at Paso Robles’ Broken Earth Winery, concurs that Albariño doesn’t have to be austere. His 2015 Limited Release Albariño shows a creamy texture while maintaining its citrusy notes.

Cameron has been handling this varietal longer than some of his colleagues in San Luis Obispo County. While most Paso producers source Albariño grapes from Paragon vineyards, there is some planting in Paso such as Broken Earth’s two-acre vineyard on Paso’s east side. The fruit from this warm region is a lot riper so the personality and the character that comes through is “on steroids,” said Cameron.

Enrique Torres, the Mexican-born owner of Diablo Paso winery, is among the winemakers sourcing fruit from Paso and Edna Valley. His passion for Albariño drives him to craft four different Albariño bottlings.

“I’m the only crazy one to do different styles,” said the winemaker whose approaches range from stainless steel fermentation to barrel-aging especially using acacia barrels. Grindley is another acacia proponent for Albariño production.

“Acacia is a tool in your kit bag,” he said. “What you don’t get is toasty oak but structure and mid-palate richness.” For the progressive winemaker there’s no right way or wrong way although he is definitely averse to 100-percent new oak for Albariño vinification.

Diablo Paso’s four wines from the 2016 vintage are deliciously different: the tart stainless steel-fermented La Chula is from Paso’s Templeton sub-appellation. Sourced from Edna Valley, both the Guanabana, aged in neutral acacia barrels, and the Galleo Reserve are well balanced with bracing acidity and layers of creaminess, with the Reserve showing shades of Viognier character. Then there’s the La Gloria Dulce, reminiscent of a riesling, a wine Torres calls a good brunch wine in place of a mimosa.

While the Central Coast is a hub for Albariño, Napa has a handful of wineries producing this wine. Among them are Peter Franus, Hill Family Estate The Hess Collection, Artesa and Kongsgaard. Gallica’s Rosemary Cakebread, a fan of Albariño, produces a small quantity sourcing fruit from Calaveras County.

The two Napa Albariños I tasted include the Hill Family’s 2016 from the cool Carneros area, expressing a brilliant acidity true to its varietal, and Hess Collection’s 2016 from Mount Veeder appellation, redolent with eucalyptus notes.

The Lodi region is also gaining recognition for its a wines. The region prides itself in growing 100-plus vitis vinfera varieties and being home to more than 80 wineries, with planting of 110,000 tended by some 800 wine growers. Of this total acreage a mere 50 acres are planted to Albariño, which may seem minuscule but is substantial compared to other California wine regions.

Of the 50 acres of Albariño, 39 acres are planted at Bokisch Vineyards, divided between Lodi and in the town of Isleton in Sacramento County (not an AVA). Marcus and Liz Bokisch are among Lodi’s large wine grapegrowers, farming some 2800 acres and selling to wineries such as Gallo and Turley.

There’s a good bit of Spanish variety grapes growing in Lodi, noted Bokisch winemaker Elyse Perry. However, while Tempranillo production is substantial, Albariño tends to be much smaller. From a handful of nine wineries producing this white variety the production ranges from 500-1,300 cases per winery annually.

The Bokisch Albariño I tasted was the 2015 stainless steel-fermented wine from Terra Alta vineyard. It came close to a Rias Baixas style accented with well-defined citrusy aromas nuanced with orange blossom notes.

“The volcanic gravely clay loam adds more of a citrus flavor,” Perry said.

A 2016 vintage from Lodi’s Harney Lane Winery and Vineyards, aged in stainless steel and neutral oak, was vibrant with tropical fruit while maintaining its crisp acidity.

Alabriño has a long way to go before it gets significant recognition in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) category. Like viognier, it has struggled for years, enjoying some popularity on the East Coast where the focus is on Spanish wine.

“It never quite hit the California palate,” Grindley said, “but it’s finally starting to get recognition here.”

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