The first time I tasted a lees-aged albariño was five years ago, inside the thick stone walls of the Palacio de Fefiñanes, a baronial pile from 1647 in the town of Cambados on Spain’s Atlantic coast.
Fefiñanes is home to the most “classical” wine producer in the region, the first producer in Rías Baixas to bottle albariño back in 1928.
“Really delicious. We all end up swallowing some,” records my notebook. Please believe me when I say this is something professional tasters rarely do.
And now, lees-aged albariño (“lees” refers to dead yeast cells – apologies for the fact that this does not sound at all appetising, but it’s the same idea as muscadet sur lie if that helps) is popping up everywhere.
The “ordinary” style of albariño is probably already familiar to you: a fresh breeze of a white wine that tastes of white peaches and sea air and is famously brilliant with seafood.
Leaving albariño on the lees – sometimes with and sometimes without stirring – gives the wine a broader and more velvety feel in the mouth.
Lees-aged albariño also tends to have more depth and intensity; you sometimes find slightly tropical flavours, too, such as papaya or pineapple; but what I like is that this doesn’t come at the expense of albariño’s characteristic freshness and salinity.
One superb example is Mar de Frades Finca Valiñas 2015 (Rías Baixas, Spain, greatwesternwine.co.uk, £29.50) which comes from a single vineyard and spends more than two and a half years on its lees and has a slight smell of melon, lime curd, apple and jasmine alongside the usual peaches and salt and a steely minerality.
Mar de Frades has been making albariño with lees-ageing since 2005. Winemaker Paula Fandiño points out that this branching out is part of the natural evolution of Rías Baixas, which underwent significant change in the Seventies and Eighties before emerging as a specialist in albariño and winning its DO in 1988. The next quarter of a century saw the vineyard area of the Rías Baixas DO increase 17-fold.
“Rías Baixas is very young in terms of being an appellation making high-quality wines,” says Fandiño. “So when winemakers start working here they think, ‘Oh my God, this [albariño] is a fantastic indigenous variety – smart, elegant…’ and the beginning is to make a very good, fresh wine – after you have mastered that perhaps you can look at the next step.”
Fandiño’s experimentation with lees is dizzying to listen to: she has also tried adding young lees – “I steal the best” – to old wines. But, she says, “Everyone says lees are fantastic but they’re not always.
They have been broken by fermentation and they have bacteria, tartaric and other acids, sometimes they are not so clean. Not all lees are good lees.”
When trying to understand how any parameter – in this case, the age of the wine as well as the contact with the lees – affects the taste of a wine it’s most instructive to try an extreme example. Bodegas Zárate Tras da Viña which spends 30 months in the tank on its lees (Indigo Wine is the importer).
El Escoces Volante On the QT Bin 19: Albariño 2015 (Rias Baixas, Spain, 12.5%, waitrosecellar.com, £14.99) spends 40 months on the lees before being bottled. But lees-ageing is often used in a less overt manner, to mould and finesse younger wines.
For instance, Fillaboa does it with its standard albariño and Mar de Frades Albariño Atlantico 2018 (Spain, Great Western Wine, £18.95; nywines.co.uk, £17.99) spends three months on its lees.
I need to talk about food. The breadth and subtle intensity of these wines works really when you are eating. The usual albariño matches apply here – for instance crab, or prawns rattled through a frying pan with lemon and garlic.
I bought my dad a packet of Brindisa steamed octopus tentacles for Father’s Day, and I can’t stop thinking about them – sliced, mixed with chunks of boiled potato, doused with olive oil and sprinkled with smoked Spanish paprika. Inside this culinary fantasy there is also a cold glass of albariño – either lees-aged or not, if I’m honest. But I’d like it to be a good one.
Wines of the week
Vue sur Mer Côtes de Thau 2018
France (12%, Aldi, £5.99)
Dry, aromatic, zesty and as refreshing as a cool breeze, this is a clever Aldi blend, made from terret bourret, picpoul and colombard from vineyards close to the Bassin de Thau lagoon in the Languedoc. A great buy.
Caronne Ste Gemme Haut-Médoc 2014
France (13%, Majestic, £14.99/£16.99 mix six/single bottle price)
This is a sturdy Médoc claret, based on cabernet sauvignon, from a vintage that suits this kind of wine. There’s a lot of matter in here – we’re talking smoky rich blackcurrants with a bit of leather – and it’s a wine that benefits from decanting as it gets better with a bit of air.
Auzells Costers del Segre 2018
Spain (12.5%, The Wine Society, £11.50)
A very clever and unusual blend of macabeo, albariño, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling that turns through a series of bright and juicy flavours like a kaleidoscope bringing glittering lime, peach or white flowers. Lovely summer drinking.