Spanish grape obsessions for all the right (culinary) reasons


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Bokisch grown Albariño (Clements Hills, Lodi)

Gastronomic Grapes

TAPAS – Tempranillo Advocates Producers & Amigos Society – is turning out to be a very good thing for the wine business.  Especially for those of us coming at it from food backgrounds.  Notwithstanding the many Spanish imports that are obviously built for show (i.e. 100 point scores), there are still few wines in the world that can shock you by the way they drastically alter sensations in the context of food as much as those made from grapes like Tempranillo, Garnacha, the Touriga Nacional and Franca, etc.

Among white wine grapes falling under this Iberian umbrella, Verdelho and Torrontés are just beginning to turn New World winegrowing into a brave new one, and someday I’d sure love to see things done with grapes like Verdejo, Mencía, and even Vinho Verde grapes like Loureiro, Trajadura and Arinto, in parts of the West Coast. 

As it stands today, the grape that I believe has made the most dramatic statement thus far, in terms of both quality and sheer culinary usefulness, is Albariño:  twenty years ago, a relative obscurity to American consumers; but today, a grape that is approaching the familiarity of a Pinot Gris/Grigio (but hopefully, never with a budding contempt).

Child labor and Albarino-friendly tapas in Bokisch's Las Cerezas Vineyard (Mokelumne River, Lodi)

I first began working with Albariño in Hawai`i in the mid-nineties, finding its combination of tropical perfume, dryness, citrusy acidity and minerality to be a perfect match with dishes incorporating the briny tastes of island fish (especially moi, onaga and opakapaka) and fresh sea vegetables (like limu and ogo).  Albariño responds particularly well to tart ingredients (particularly in seviches and adobo style seafoods); and the use of vinegars and citrus juices is certainly common enough in the Southeast Asian as well as Japanese (re ponzu) cuisines contributing to the Islands’ cross-cultural culinary heritage.

Starting in 2006, I spent a couple of years as a fish out of water, doing restaurant and retail consulting back East – specifically, the coast of Georgia, Winter Park in Florida, and Memphis, the birthplace of Elvis – where I didn't have nearly as varied a culinary culture to work with.  Yet typically medium bodied Albariño worked for me in many a multi-course wine event as a good 'tweener – something capable of bridging the gap between, say, a seafood appetizer served with lighter white wine and an other-white-meat course calling for a fuller bodied white like Chardonnay.

For example, we might start a meal with grilled wild gulf shrimp washed down with a light, snappy champagne, progress to a zesty Albariño with blue crab cakes and sweet corn relish, before moving on to a heavier Chardonnay with a butter fried fish or creamed chicken and mushrooms (in Southeastern U.S., their idea of “light” cuisine is our “heavy”).  In this context, as a between-wine, Albariño serves a role similar that might also be filled by a good Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, or dry style Rieslings from Germany or Alsace.

But there are differences advantageous to Albariño:  Albariño is markedly crisper than Pinot Gris, with a more expansive, readily appealing stone fruitiness (i.e. peach, apricot, nectarine-like).  The acidity of a good Albariño is on the par with a Sauvignon Blanc, but you won’t ever find weedy, bell peppery, or even sweet pea-like, notes of pyrazine in an Albariño (not that pyrazines in themselves are a major negative – but it is a differentiation).

Liz and Markus Bokisch, enjoying paella in Lodi

Natural acidity is a plus for Albariño, but it is rarely so sharp that it bites.  A good Grüner Veltliner, for instance, can be just as perfumed and minerally as an Albariño, but also typically more austere in its acidity.  Both Riesling and Albariño are flowery and citrus scented; and in fact, in some quarters Albariño is still said to be a clone of Riesling supposedly transplanted by twelfth century German monks (a good story, but a mythical one).  Be as it may, even the zestiest Albariño is rarely as tart, or fusel oil-like, as a dry style Riesling; and in fact, an Albariño is typically more viscous, sometimes even creamy in texture, in a way Riesling never is.

Finally, in recent years Albariño has also been likened to a "light-weight Viognier," which is not just insulting, but absurdly inaccurate.  Although the flowery fruitiness of a good Albariño may be somewhat Viognier-like, the minerally notes typical of Albariño are almost never found in Viognier.  Classic Albariño tends to be lighter in weight than a Viognier, and is also decidedly zestier in acidity – two qualities giving it a distinct advantage over Viognier in terms of seafood versatility (which is not to say Viognier is not as food-worthy - it's just a different animal, begging for more aggressive, meatier matches in a fashion closer to Chardonnay than Albariño).

To deepen your understanding of Albariño, you do need to get a feel for its native Rías Baixas in Galicia, occupying the northeast corner of Spain directly north of Portugal along the Atlantic.  Unlike the rest of Spain (associated with dry, hot landscapes), Rías Baixas is green and verdant; which also means heavy rainfall, high humidity, temperatures rarely above 86° F., but almost never below 50º.  Albariño makes up close to 95% of Rías Baixas' plantings (about 7,500 acres total) simply because it is the only grape with thick enough skins and high enough phenolics to thrive in these severe conditions.  Although vineyards were traditionally trained on pergolas to circulate air and avoid rot and mildew, modern day trellising and opened canopy management is what does the job today.

Like all great wine regions, Rías Baixas is a convergence of climate, soil and grape adaptation.  Of its five recognized sub-zones, the finest is said to be Val do Salnés, a gently rolling, alluvial basin situated at the northern end of this DO (i.e. Denominación de Origen).  This is also the coolest, wettest section of Rías Baixas, but Albariño responds positively to Val do Salnés' well drained, rocky, pervasively granitic soils (even trellis posts are made out of granite rather than wood).  In Rías Baixas, Albariño's lime/peach fruitiness, flinty minerality, and occasional salinity (undoubtedly derived from the sea salt saturated air) are as much reflections of the grape as terroir.


American Breakthroughs

So how has Albariño fared in the U.S. thus far?  In 1996 Louisa Lindquist (wife of Bob Lindquist of Qupe) planted the first commercial block of the grape in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard (leased from Charlotte Young and Miguel Ibarra) in Santa Ynez Valley, but Havens Wine Cellar (defunct since 2009) produced the first commercial California bottling that I know of:  a '99 made from a two year old Carneros/Napa Valley planting (the first vintage of Lindquist's Verdad Albariño was a 2000).

Both Lindquist and Havens were inspired by the relatively cool, coastal, Rías Baixas-like climates of their respective terrains, and the results have been both brilliant and uneven.  Early vintages of Havens captured intensely honeyed, lime and pear-like aspects of Albariño; but on the palate, the grape's intrinsically high acidity, tough skins and dark seeds have been borne out by sharp, grapefruity, mildly bitter, ultimately austere sensations.

I enjoyed the early Verdad Albariños a bit more:  similar to the Havens bottlings, but lusher in the nose - juicy pear and traces of minerality tinged with orange/lemon essences - and on the palate, the zesty, mouthwatering flavors possessing all but the rounded, viscous, textured juxtapositions Rías Baixas grown Albariños seem to attain with ease.

In 2000 I paid my first visit to Abacela in Southern Oregon's Umqua Valley; a hillside vineyard dedicated to Spanish varieties – especially Tempranillo (although a source of intense Syrahs as well).  Since the mid-2000s Abacela’s Albariños have gone through some growing pains – transitioning from thick, golden, blowsy whites to paler, crisper models – and certainly bear watching. 

Albarino harvest in Bokisch Ranches' Terra Alta Vineyard (Clements Hills, Lodi)

However, here in 2012, the plantings I'm most excited about have been those of Markus and Liz Bokisch in Lodi.  The Bokischs are major grape growers in the region; farming some 1,300 acres, mostly in the hillier eastern sections of the AVA (in sub-appellations like Jahant and Clements Hills), supplying some 115 different winery-clients.  But don’t get too excited:  out of all of this, less than 60 acres of Bokisch Ranches are planted to Spanish grapes; the bulk of it Albariño (now up to 35 acres), and the balance consisting of Tempranillo, Spanish clones of Garnacha and Garnacha Blanca, Graciano, and Monastrell (a.k.a Mourvèdre). 

There's some salient history behind the Bokischs' devotion to Spanish grapes.  In the late nineties Markus was charged by Joseph Phelps Vineyards to source Rhône varieties for the winery's Vin de Mistral line.  It was while driving back and forth between Napa Valley and Lodi that Markus first felt the spirit:  the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta reminding him of the Delta de l’Ebre in Spain where many of his close relatives still live (although Markus was raised in California, he spent many childhood summers in Catalonia).  After leaving Joseph Phelps, Liz and Markus moved to Spain to work in the Spanish wine industry for a spell; returning to California in 1995 to start their Lodi-only grape growing business.

Less than 1% of what Bokisch Ranches grows ends up being bottled under the Bokisch Vineyards label, specializing strictly in Spanish style wines (although a 2011 Verdelho has just recently been added to the portfolio).  The Bokisch reds, if anything, have been steadily improving.  Surprisingly, their best wine early on in the game was probably their Graciano – making a velvety, if loosely constructed, varietal red – which stood out as something very unique (the Spanish having drastically reduced their own usage of Graciano – especially in Rioja, where Tempranillo has recently taken over, even in vineyards once devoted to Garnacha).  But in recent vintages, the Bokisch Garnacha has become brighter and prettier, and the Bokisch Tempranillo, undeniably svelte and elegant – both varietal bottlings now easily outshining their Graciano and Monastrell.

Early vintages of Bokisch Albariño were estate grown blends from two of Lodi's sub-regions:  one from a 3 acre "mother block" (behind their home) falling within the Mokelumne River AVA, a flat site sitting in relatively deep, sandy alluvial loam typifying Lodi's oldest growths; and the other from their Terra Alta Vineyard in the Clements Hills AVA – the latter, a slightly higher elevation appellation, marked by sloping, shallow, volcanic gravelly loam over hard clay, typical of the eastern side of Lodi where it transitions into the Sierra Foothills.

Albarino harvest in Bokisch Ranches' Terra Alta Vineyard

Since the summation of degree days in Lodi is low Region IV – a warm Mediterranean climate, resembling center-of-Spain more than coastal (Atlantic) Spain – it has been interesting to see how the originally cold-climate adapted Albariño has adjusted to this part of California.  As the vines have gotten more mature, so has the Bokischs’ grasp of the grape.  As recently as in the 2008 vintage, the Bokisch Albariños were fairly big (over 14% alcohol), hugely aromatic wines – gushing with tropical flowers and fruits (pineapple, orange, tangerine, mango, grapefruit) – that could make even a Viognier taste small by comparison.

Since 2009, however, Markus Bokisch began to trust more in the grape by picking considerably earlier (closer to 20°, 21° Brix, as opposed to 22°, 23°); which according to Bokisch, required “a leap of faith, but necessary to making wine lower in alcohol and higher in acidity.”  What transpired for Bokisch are Albariños that are significantly lighter (around 12% alcohol), crisper and finer, while still possessing all the honeyed, citrus, tropical flower and wet stone fruitiness you look for in the grape.  The lithe and lovely 2010 Bokisch Albariño was a breakthrough, and the currently released 2011 is even better!

Because Bokisch is a supplier of grapes, other American producers have also benefited.  The 2011 Odisea Dream Albariño, for instance, is sourced from Bokisch’s Terra Alta Vineyard, and is a dry white of such lemony zest and spare yet flowery charms, it just screams for raw oysters or seviche.  Says Odisea winemaker/owner Adam Webb, “I want my Albariño for braised octopus, steamed clams, or anything with the smell and taste of salinity.” In fact, Webb swears he smells “ocean air” even in Lodi’s Delta region.

At last year’s 2011 TAPAS Grand Wine Tasting in San Francisco, there were several other American grown Albariños showing parallel progression:  notably, a moderately full, honeysuckle-like yet lemony crisp 2010 Abacela from Earl Jones’ Umpqua Valley estate; and an even steelier, breathier 2010 by another Lodi grower, Harney Lane Winery.

Not to be outdone, the 2010 Verdad Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard Edna Valley Albariño may very well be the finest rendering of this grape in California yet; emanating citrus and honeyed peach in precision-cut, crisp, silken layers (also significant is the 2008 Verdad Santa Ynez Valley Tempranilo, which has the fleshy, meaty roundness of the grape, along with more unique qualities of cassis, red rose and jasmine tea infused by crafty blending of Grenache and Syrah).

Going by the recent track records of these groundbreaking winegrowers, you can’t be surprised if you see even finer and more food-worthy wines emerging in the next few years to come.  What a nice turn of events indeed – this recent Spanish grape obsession!

Markus Bokisch and spit roasted goat

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