Albariño Taking Off In Virginia
By Matt Fitzsimmons
Albariño is arguably Spain’s signature white grape. Found mainly in the Spanish wine growing region of Rías Baixas and nearby Portuguese region of Vinho Verde (where it’s known as Alvarinho), Albariño produces a light, crisp wine, famous for its salinity and zestiness.
Albariño isn’t well known in Virginia, but be prepared to hear a lot more about it. While Virginia currently only has 34 bearing acres of Albariño, its proven so popular that in the last several years an additional 27 acres have been planted. This makes it the fastest growing grape variety in the state.
It isn’t just a handful of local wineries that are dominating these new planting either. According to Skip Causey, co-owner of Potomac Point Vineyard and President of the Virginia Vineyards Association, “When we were writing the latest Virginia Commercial Grape Report we found 27 new acres of Albariño spread across 12 vineyards. And it isn’t just a handful of big sites that are dominating these plantings. Albariño is going in everywhere.”
“The Mighty Mouse of Grapes”
Chrysalis Vineyards helped bring Albariño into Virginia in 1996. Owner Jenny McCloud explained the idea for planting a Spanish variety was inspired by an American Society of Enology and Viticulture panel on ‘alternative grapes’ led by Dennis Horton and Alan Kinne of Horton Vineyards. But it wasn’t until Jenny visited Rías Baixas that she discovered Albariño, which impressed her with its minerality and acidity.
She may not have realized it at the time, but the weather in Rías Baixas is similar to that of Virginia. Not only do both regions endure high levels of humidity, frequent Atlantic squalls make Rías Baixas one of Spain’s wettest regions. These conditions mean grapes that grow there would likely perform well back home.
Jenny later learned Dr. Tony Wolf of Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Research Center was also looking into this grape, and the results looked promising. Albariño’s loose clusters and tough skins help to prevent rot and increases it’s resistant to pests. It’s also cold hardy, a good trait given the state’s variable weather. To top it all, it has naturally high acidity.
High acid grapes can hang longer than other varieties without losing that acidity – an important factor when rainfall forces winegrowers to let their grapes dry out on the vine. Virginia’s heat also naturally brings that acidity down to more manageable levels. These factors make Albariño a hit with Virginia growers.
Caitlin Horton, head winemaker for Horton Vineyards had high praise for her Albariño. “It’s awesome! It’s not bulletproof and it’s got problems, but it’s versatile. It can be oaked, it can be put in steel, and it can be made into a sparkling. The way it tastes in the field is not one note. It has liveliness, it has good acid, and it doesn’t overpower it.
Albariño is the one block you don’t have to worry about as long as you keep it on a regular spray program. It’s not a high density fruit, but it’s very consistent. Unlike some grapes like Petit Manseng it’s also a well-known wine variety. Albariño is the Mighty Mouse of grapes.”
Understanding Albariño’s Appeal
Albariño has two big advantages over other up-and-coming Virginia grapes; its name-recognition and versatility.
Petit Manseng is currently one of the darlings of Virginia wine growers, but it lacks the same name recognition Albariño already has. There are just over 3100 acres of Petit Manseng planted globally, according to 2016 data on international grape plantings. By contrast there are 13,700 acres of Albariño. On top of that, Albariño is already strongly associated with Spanish and Portuguese wines and specifically with Vinho Verde-styles.
It’s also very approachable. Albariño’s high acidity and salinity makes it a famously good pairing for seafood and fatty dishes. This gives it the potential for filling a niche as a food-friendly, easy-drinking crowd-pleaser.
Virginia’s Albariños have also been racking up awards. Maggie Malick Wine Cave’s 2020 steel-fermented Albariño earned double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, and later went on to place as one of Virginia’s top-12 wines in the 2022 Governor’s Cup competition. Ingleside Vineyards has also earned a number of Gold medals for their Albariños in different Governor’s Cup competitions.
“Albariño is a premium grape for us,” explained Mark Malick, winegrower at Maggie Malick winery. “It’s a smaller berry, which means about 25% less yield in comparison to most other grapes. But the smaller berries mean more intensity of flavor.”
Virginia’s Albariños Stand On Their Own
This April Maggie Malick hosted an event with a group of industry professionals, wine writers, and social media mavens to sample Albariños from Virginia, Spain, Portugal, and Uruguay.
Of the 11 Virginia Albariños that were sampled, most tasted varietally correct but distinctly different from their Spanish counterparts. Nearly all the Virginia wines trended toward notes of stone fruit, especially yellow or white peach. Most had more traditional lime-zest flavors. Several had notes of melon.
The greatest difference between local Albariños and Spanish ones were the local examples were even more approachable. The salinity in Spanish and Portuguese Albariño were very apparent. That saline quality was often present in Virginia Albariños, but it wasn’t noticeable to the same degree.
Mark Misch, former winemaker for Ingleside and current winegrower for Trump Winery, explained his view of Albariño’s appeal. “I think it’s a couple factors. Albariño is relatively new to the state so its newness makes it appealing. Not many people know what it should taste like either so we have a lot of wiggle room to make a “Virginia” style.”
You can find great examples of Virginia Albariños around the state, including Maggie Malick Wine Caves, October One Vineyard, Horton Vineyards, Blenheim Vineyards, and more. Have you tried comparing Virginia and Spanish Albariño? Tell us what you think!
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a blogger who has visited nearly every winery in Virginia – most of them twice. Follow his progress at https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.