Wine Sense: Albariño’s Ascent

The classic Spanish varietal sees strong interest on- and off-premise.

Albariño’s appeal has expanded beyond Spanish restaurants. At the Asian-inspired Embeya restaurant (above) in Chicago, the aromatic wine pairs well with delicate fare.
Albariño’s appeal has expanded beyond Spanish restaurants. At the Asian-inspired Embeya restaurant (above) in Chicago, the aromatic wine pairs well with delicate fare. (Photo by Huge Galdones)

Albariño, a white varietal that’s indigenous to Spain’s Rías Baixas region, is finding a home on wine lists beyond traditional Spanish restaurants and tapas bars. “The on-premise channel provides a sampling opportunity for new consumers and helps build awareness of Albariño and its food-friendly versatility,” says Molly Davis, senior marketing director at E&J Gallo Winery.

Gallo, which imports volume leader Martín Códax Albariño ($18 a 750-ml. bottle) from Rías Baixas, reports the category is up 9 percent for the year ended April 12th, according to IRI data. At Folio Fine Wine Partners, importer of the Fillaboa Joven Albariño ($19.99 a 750-ml. bottle) from Rías Baixas, vice president of marketing Brennan Anderson says depletions through the first quarter of 2015 were up 27 percent over last year.

Embeya, an Asian-influenced restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop, illustrates Albariño’s broadening market appeal. “The wine’s aromatics and acidity pair well with appetizers like salmon tartare,” says owner Attila Gyulai. The restaurant’s 400-selection wine list includes the 2013 Benito Santos Igrexario de Saiar Albariño ($12 a glass; $46 a 750-ml. bottle), the 2011 Pazo de Galegos Albariño ($52) and the 2011 Columna Albariño ($42)—all from Rías Baixas.

Park Hyatt New York hotel wine director Tristan Prat-Vincent offers several domestic Albariños at the Back Room, a restaurant that features contemporary American cuisine. Selections include the 2013 Hendry Albariño from Napa Valley ($16 a glass; $64 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 2013 Palmer Vineyards Albariño from the North Fork of Long Island ($59 a 500-ml. bottle).

Prat-Vincent views Albariño as more than a summer sipper. “It’s a no-brainer with a raw bar, grilled octopus or sashimi,” he says. At the Living Room bar, Prat-Vincent offers the 2013 Pazo de Galegos ($15 a glass; $60 a 750-ml. bottle).

Albariño is a popular choice at Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa, a Catalan-inspired tapas venue. “Restaurants are driving lesser-known varietals like Albariño,” says manager Kim Brown. On the list are the top-selling 2011 Martín Códax Albariño ($10 a 6-ounce glass; $15 an 8-ounce glass; $40 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 2014 Don Olegario Albariño ($16; $24; $64).

Spanish wine’s desirability is also driving Albariño sales, says Bob Paulinski, senior vice president of wine at BevMo. “There’s a halo effect since Spain is experiencing solid performance,” he adds. Paulinski sees a place for Albariño as a summer alternative to Pinot Grigio, adding that “it’s more of a niche sell.” BevMo units typically carry five to six Albariño SKUs, including the Lee Family Farm Albariño ($18 to $19 a 750-ml. bottle) from Monterey, California, and the Jorge Ordoñez La Caña Albariño ($16) from Rías Baixas.

Lee Family Farm owner Dan Lee, who also operates Morgan Winery, sources his Albariño from two Monterey County vineyards. “The wine has a lot of lemon and lime, with crisp acidity and aromatics,” he says. It’s a popular by the glass ($14 a pour) at Hog Island Oyster restaurants, in which Lee is a partner.

Veteran Albariño producers like Jorge Ordoñez established the market for Albariño 25 years ago. Imported in California by Henry Wine Group, the 2014 La Caña ($18 a 750-ml. bottle) and the barrel-fermented 2012 La Caña Navia ($39) are both on allocation. “Customers realize Spanish wines represent great value,” Jorge Ordoñez director Craig Gandolf says, adding that retail chains like Costco and Wegmans now stock the brand.

Albariño from Rías Baixas has been improving in quality and stirring consumer interest, says Frank Paredes, director of brand management for Winebow’s MundoVino import company. “More producers are paying attention to quality, and we’re seeing greater variation in the styles of the wine,” he notes. MundoVino imports the Finca de Arantei Albariño ($20 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 5,000-case Licia Albariño ($16).

“American consumers are still in the discovery phase of wines from Spain and Albariño in particular,” Folio’s Anderson says. “Certainly sommeliers and retail buyers recognize how wonderful Albariño is, and they’re introducing consumers to these fantastic wines.”