Contrary to popular belief, California’s white wine industry does not revolve solely around Chardonnays. Winemakers looking to break free of that pigeonhole are planting a variety of light, aromatic grapes in vineyards up and down the Golden State. In the south they are planting Viognier, in the north Sauvignon Blanc, and the Central Coast is rapidly becoming an epicenter for Albariño.
Traditionally grown in Spain’s Rías Baixas region in the province of Galicia, Albariño flourishes in maritime climates. The sea-loving grape is known for its highly aromatic floral nose and white peach, apricot, and citrus flavors. It’s very pale, with high acidity and a subtle saltiness, making it a perfect pairing with seafood. As the Spanish like to say, it is the “vino del mar.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the grape grows so well on California’s San Luis Obispo (SLO) Coast. Wineries along the SLO Coast — between Monterey and Santa Barbara —are on average five miles from the Pacific. The area has the coolest growing season in all of California, and ocean breezes and coastal fog give it one of the longest growing seasons as well.
“Albariño is well-suited to maritime climates such as ours,” Jeremy Leffert, winemaker for Croma Vera, says. “Our cool climate, with close proximity to the ocean, preserves the intense tropical aromatics that Albariño is best known for.”
Jamie Creager of Niven Family Wine Estates agrees. “Our unique exposure to the ocean brings out the trademark salinity and briny characteristic that’s found in a traditional Spanish Albariño,” Creager says.
The small region of 35 wineries and 5,000 vineyard acres planted accounts for 20 percent of California’s total Albariño acreage.
Production is small but growing. In 2002, a lowly two acres of the Spanish grape were planted in California. According to the latest California Grape Acreage Report, that number skyrocketed to 396 planted acres in 2018.
“Consumers are expanding their horizons when it comes to seeking out white wines other than Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio/Gris,” Creager says, calling Albariño a “crowd-pleaser” that “quickly becomes a new go-to” for curious drinkers.
Niven Family’s Tangent Winery helped gather momentum for Albariño in the early 2000s by becoming one of the first wineries in the country to commit a significant portion of its vineyard to its growth. Today, the Niven family is a leading grower of Albariño, with 45 acres in its Paragon Vineyard devoted to the grape.
As winemakers increase Albariño production, these wines are becoming more available to both expert and casual wine drinkers. Demand is growing as a result.
“A few years ago many of our customers had not heard of Albariño,” Mindy Oliver, owner of Croma Vera Wines, says. “Now it is the most requested wine at our tasting room.”
Five Californian Albariños to Try
Smokier than a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and more saline than a Chardonnay, this Albariño is deeply layered and textured. The crisp finish makes it a perfect wine to pair with seafood. Oysters anyone? Average price: $23.
One of the area’s first big Albariño proponents, Tangent’s winemakers craft these bottles in the traditional style of a Rias Baixas Albariño. Theirs was the only Albariño produced outside of Rias Baixas and Vinho Verde to win the 2016 Bacchus International Wine Competition. Average price: $17.
With a vineyard just over a mile from the ocean, it does not get more coastal than this. Sea breeze and mineral-rich soil produce an Albariño high in acidity, ripe fruit flavors, and nice mineral structure. Average price: $27.
Minerals and fig preserve on the nose with lots of lively acidity make this light, crisp wine perfect for pasta with olive oil and garlic. Average price: $20.
The Squire Canyon Albariño was the inaugural crop after grafting from Sauvignon Blanc in 2015. Its wine has aromas of star jasmine, elderberry, and orange blossom with a fruity palate of nectarine, apricot, and orange zest. Average price: $29.