There exists an Iberian grape variety, perhaps the only white grape from this peninsula to achieve “classic” status around the world. Perhaps you know it as Albariño, the lively white grape from Rías Baixas, a northwestern Spanish region that more resembles the coast of Ireland than it does the land of bull fighting and flamenco. But drive across the Miño River (or walk or swim – it’s a mere few hundred feet) and vineyards overlooking this river (known as the Minho here, of course) will have Alvarinho, the noble white grape of Portugal’s Vinho Verde region. Is it a coincidence that these names sound so familiar? Not so much — it’s (gasp!) the same grape.
Whether called Albariño (Spanish) or Alvarinho (Portuguese), this grape has an inherent set of characteristics that hold true whether grown in Spain or Portugal. With bright acidity and subtle but plentiful aromatics, Albariño is like Viognier on the nose and Riesling on the palate: ripe peach, apricot and citrus meet orange blossom, rocky minerality, and often a saline character, with all of those aromas getting more tart and mouthwatering on the palate. It’s enticing and refreshing, a more interesting alternative to Pinot Grigio on a hot day and the perfect accompaniment to fresh seafood, the specialty of both of its homelands.
Since only a narrow river separates the two coastal regions, with one’s vines often visible from the other’s, Rías Baixas and Vinho Verde share many similarities. They both benefit from a cool, rainy, Atlantic-influenced climate, creating a lush, green landscape suited for white winemaking, the specialty of both regions. Granite soils are prevalent, contributing to the wines’ notable minerality, and vines are often trained on high pergolas to allow air to flow freely and avoid dampness and rot.
But that’s where most of the similarities end. Vinho Verde is actually quite a large region, the largest in Portugal, in fact, and Rías Baixas is relatively small, producing a mere 10 million liters of wine yearly, compared to Vinho Verde’s 75 to 85 million liters. What does this mean for the wine? It means that the quality of Vinho Verde is much more variable than the wines of Rías Baixas; while there’s a lot of high quality Vinho Verde, there’s a lot of cheap wine coming from this region as well. And while of course there are some low-quality wines coming from Rías Baixas, the wines are more reliable overall. But, there’s a flip side; because Vinho Verde produces more wine, it’s much more available, affordable, and well known than the wines of Rías Baixas.
Back to Albariño/Alvarinho: while this grape is the most noble of the grapes grown in both regions, its presence in the vineyards of each region differs. If you pick up a bottle of wine from Rías Baixas, it’s almost guaranteed that the wine will contain Albariño; about 96 percent of the vineyards there are planted with Albariño. It has become the signature grape of the region in an area where nearly all the production is of white wine. In contrast, Vinho Verde has a whopping 45 different grape varieties, and the aromatic Loureiro is actually the most planted white grape.
In fact, Alvarinho in Vinho Verde is not as likely to be found in a varietal wine as it is in a blended one; the majority of Vinho Verde’s wines are blends of several grape varieties, in line with the tradition of the region. The production of Alvarinho as a single varietal wine is actually a relatively recent trend, and one that still isn’t too prevalent. Wines that are labeled with the grape variety Alvarinho can only come from one region of Vinho Verde, the northern Monção and Melegaço, which, fittingly, is located closest to Rías Baixas on the southern banks of the Minho River.
By comparison, Albariño is almost always produced as a varietal wine in Rías Baixas. In fact, when the DO was first created in 1980, it only allowed for the production of Albariño, a regulation that was amended when Spain joined the EU. Some blends are produced using some of the same white grapes found in Vinho Verde, but that’s uncommon. Rías Baixas’ winemakers’ dedication to this grape is perhaps the reason why Albariño is more closely associated with Spain than Portugal; while the grape has been grown in both regions for hundreds of years, Vinho Verde’s winemakers haven’t highlighted it in solo bottlings until recently.
So how can a wine lover expect these wines to differ in taste? Overall, the wines of Vinho Verde tend to be lower in alcohol, less intense, and often slightly effervescent. Rías Baixas Albariño tends to be riper and more floral, without any effervescence, though with plenty of acid-driven zing. However, the single-varietal Alvarinhos of northern Vinho Verde bear more similarities to the wines of Rías Baixas than their blended siblings, but with less-ripe apple and grapefruit aromas. Though both Albariño and Alvarinho wines are typically unoaked, there is a good amount of experimentation in both regions, so differences often depend on the producer rather than the region.
One grape, two names, two countries, and endless potential for the future: that’s the appeal of Albariño/Alvarinho. So which should you be drinking now? With the amount of character and refreshing acidity offered, it seems that the only answer is: both!