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Spain may be best known for its reds but, with their modern mix of flavour and charm, there’s plenty to talk about with its whites too. Sarah Jane Evans MW gives us her top tips
Grapes to taste
The first of Spain’s whites to hit the international headlines, this is now recognised as a classic wine for seafood. Very pale in colour, there’s an alluring scent of white peaches and creamy oatmeal followed by a refreshing citrus zestiness. You’ll often find it blended with local varieties Treixadura and Loureira.
The sister of the red Garnacha (France’s Grenache), Garnacha Blanca crops up across Catalonia, as well as Navarra and Rioja. It is tricky to describe because its wines are more about texture and complexity – often enhanced by the use of oak barrels – than fruit.
In the hands of top winemakers and sometimes blended with other varietals, it makes serious whites which express beautifully the mineral character of their origins. Interestingly, its lack of obvious fruit makes its wines great for food matching.
Verdejo Vair-deh-ho – or say Vair-dekko which really expresses the wine’s punchy character
Ideal for every Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc fan who wants to try something different, Verdejo typically makes a very pale wine with a faint greenish tinge and aromas ranging from herbs and fennel to Kiwi crunchiness.
Verdejo’s flavour ranges from a zesty lemon curd to tropical fruits, and local winemakers insist that it also shows a hint of amargor, the kind of bitterness found in bitter almonds. Not an appealing word I know, but it does gives the wine a very clean edge.
While some top producers are also using oak barrels to add richness and texture, you might also see it sold young and served cool where it’s been made like Sauvignon Blanc in stainless steel.
A real outsider, this is grown along the windswept and rainy northern coastline around San Sebastian – the city with the greatest density of Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain. Used in the wines of Chacolí, it produces wines of piercingly brisk acidity enlivened with a slight fizz.
RIas Baixas Tucked into the top left-hand corner of Spain, above Portugal, the region of Galicia has become the smart place for unique and elegant whites. Galicia is perhaps best known as the destination for the thousands who trek across France and Spain to the region’s capital, Santiago de Compostela. For some this is a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James, while to others it is a great excuse for a holiday. En route many will discover the deliciously fresh white wines, from vines that thrive in the rain on the green and rolling slopes.
Rías Baixas is the most famous of the wine regions, and here it is mainly Albariño that is grown, but look out too for the regions of Monterrei, Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras. They also offer exceptional whites, some from the Godello grape, a new rising star.
Catalonia is a huge region that heads south-west from the French border, down past Barcelona. The soils and climate differ widely throughout. Some of Spain’s top red wines, cavas and white
wines are produced here.
Particularly worth seeking out are the Garnachas to be found in coastal Allella, the slate soils of Priorat, and the neighbouring regions of Montsant and Terra Alta.
Rueda is an hour’s drive north-west up the motorway from Madrid, through the Sierra de Guadarrama and up into the high country where the white grapes keep their freshness despite the hot
summers. Rueda is still catching up with the fact that its white wines are literally flavour of the month.
For Sauvignon Blanc fans they offer a treat, with the same vibrant freshness, but also a gentle restraint. It’s a region to explore too: some growers have vines over 100 years old while new arrivals are trying new winemaking techniques. Rueda does produce good Sauvignon Blanc too. If the label says Sauvignon Blanc, then it’s 100%, if it says Rueda Verdejo, it’s 100% Verdejo, and if it says Verdejo, then it’s 50% Verdejo blended with other whites
Rioja does not just produce red wines and rosados – it makes whites too. Until recently most of them have been unexciting but with its neighbour Rueda stepping up the competition recently, Rioja’s whites are looking up too, becoming fresher and livelier.
Food & wine matching
My advice is to take a clue from the locals: Albariño is one of the great seafood wines, especially with freshly caught, simply cooked shellfish. With the freshest fish and great wine there’s no need for hefty sauces. Crab, scallops, mussels – all work well as does a seafood paella and grilled salmon. Its peachy purity also makes it a good choice with sushi.
Verdejo, with its Sauvignon Blanc character, is ideal with goats’ cheeses and leafy salads which complement its herbal aromas. With its tropical notes, a cool glass of Verdejo works with the spicy, coconutty richness of a Thai green curry, and its liveliness also provides a dart of citrus freshness to fried foods such as calamari.
Garnacha Blanca is a really versatile choice on a wine list, from poultry and small game birds through to fish and vegetarian dishes with complex sauces.
Wines from Spain Tasting March 2011