What do Fyodor Dostoyevsky and albariño and have in common?
Well, you’re on your own with Notes from the Underground, but I can help make your transition from, say, riesling or sauvignon blanc to albariño seamless, painless and guilt-free.
Two words: Martin Códax. Okay, four: you need to tack on Rías Baixas to arrive at a true understanding of what albariño can offer.
Provided you’re not as geographically challenged as the average American twelfth-grader, find the Iberian Peninsula on a map and check out the lonely little outpost sitting just above Portugal. That’s Galicia; a unique, autonomous Spanish community with its own President, its own language, and a culture that’s more Celtic than Latin (there’s an abundance of blondes here and Galician natives play a bagpipe clone called a gaita).
Poking into the Atlantic Ocean, serrated by coves and estuaries, is Rías Baixas—a smallish zone where all the Bacchanalian stars have aligned to produce Club Med for albariño. A small, low yielding, thick-skinned grape, albariño is naturally resistant to maritime dampness and flourishes in the face of ocean breezes, picking up subtle nuances from the granitic subsoils on which nothing suitable for human consumption was meant to grow—except grapes. And it’s even touch and go for them. So nurture kicks in where nature defers; albariño is high-maintenance, and is generally grown using the ‘pergola system’ wherein the vines are trained to grow up and along six-foot high granite stakes, high above the soggy soil.
Albariño methodology is more labor-intensive than mapping out the compositional balance of Crime and Punishment, but when adhered to with the sort of possessiveness unique to winemakers and literary craftsmen, the wine can be sublime.
In fact, there is likely no better half-shell oyster wine on the planet, with the noted exception of muscadet from the western tip of the Loire Valley, which is albariño’s equal. In both of these wines, there is a shivery acidity to balance the cream of stone fruit and mandarin orange, but in each is a faint, but unmistakable whiff of brine. It may be illusion, the power of suggestion, like hearing the surf in a conch shell, but I don’t think so. There is a mystical connection between the sea and grape vines that live out their considerable lives (some Rías Biaxas vines are well into their second century) in sight and smell of Neptune’s trident, and why shouldn’t that show up—even subtly—in the glass.
Bodegas Martin Códax was formed in 1986 by a covey of vintners, and like any good Galician winemaking enterprise, their focus was on the star pupil: albariño. The winemaker responsible for the 2008 is Katia Álvarez, one of a number of women who are beginning to make a name for themselves in the male-dominated Rías Baixas wine world.
Another is Luisa Freire Plana, a winemaker at Bodega Santiago Ruiz, who’s got this to say about albariño: “Some in the industry try to insult us by saying the albariño is a wine only for women, but I think it’s a wine that is too complex for some men.”
Which is insulting to men, right? But hey, Luisa, I couldn’t care less so long as you keep cranking out the good stuff. After fifteen minutes in a bucket of ice water (I’d use ocean water if I could get it), my bottle of Martin Códax Rías Biaxas albariño has picked up just the right chill and I’m going to settle in with a soupçon of sea mist in the snifter and a good long book.
I guarantee that this will make even The Brothers Karamazov palatable.
Martín Códax Rías Biaxas Albariño, 2010, about $14: Prettier than Jessica Albariño in the glass; pale gold with emerald flecks and a startlingly assertive nose full of peach and melon. There’s an intriguing herbal undertone as well, definitely thyme, nearly lavender. A full octave of sensations follows on the palate led by mandarin orange, apricot, kiwi and granny smith apples. Most notable to the mouthfeel is the very slight effervescence, doing a danza de espada with the wine’s amazing acidity. A combination of sur lies aging and malolactic fermentation adds a creamy depth which lingers along with the Galician minerality—characteristic of the breed.