Albarinho is a grape variety responsible for the saline and fresh white wines from the coastal region of Galicia, in Spain's far northwest. Here it is labeled as a varietal wine in the Rias Baixas zone, a coveted terroir that is responsible for some of the most expensive white wine in the country. Across the border in Portugal, it is known as Alavarinho and is the principle grape in Vinho Verde, or 'green wine.' This is an apt name for a style of wine if ever there was one, given its mouth-puckering bite.
Albarinho popularity grew rapidly in the mid-1990's when it represented a new paradigm of Spanish wine among American sommeliers, particularly those in New York and San Francisco. The variety's popularity was as much because of its novelty as a fresh and peachy wine from Spain, previously a bastion of old-school oxidative winemaking, as it was due to Albarinho's charms. Ironically, more than a decade on, it is the more traditional idiom of Spanish white wine that is coaxing enthusiasm from the current sommelier brigade.
This is because Albarinho is a grape variety that offers aromas akin to Viognier's stone fruit notes, without the viscosity, complexity and indelible imprint of Viognier's flavourful allure. Admittedly, Albarinho is brighter with more acidity than Viognier. It is also resistant to cold, damp conditions. Yet despite endeavours to entice more character from the grape using winemaking techniques such as barrel work, malolactic fermentation and extended lees ageing, Albarinho's wines remain pithy and saline, but relatively simple.
However this is the point. Albarinho's ambitious mantle was the creation of tastemakers, enthusiastic about a style of wine that they had not tasted before. The excitement over Albarinho translated to Australia where growers, eager to offer greater diversity and a style desired by the American market at the time, mistakenly planted the less commercially viable Savagnin instead of Albarinho.
Despite all of this, Albarinho provides eminently fresh wines of considerable charm, especially when drunk with simple fresh seafood. Despite the trends and whims of fancy in foreign markets, that is the way things will remain in Spain and Portugal.