In the American wine trade, there’s an expression called “hand sell,” meaning that bottles from a certain region, grape or vintner are sold only if the merchant makes a strong presentation.
For decades, Spanish white wines have been a “hand sell” on these shores. Slowly, steadily, that is changing. And to a significant degree, albariño has been the entry point, the introduction to a wondrous array of Spanish whites.
“At a certain point, people started realizing that Spanish wine is not just red,” says Alex Raij, who owns three Spanish restaurants in New York City, “and Albariño is definitely 100% responsible for that.”
Where Albariño has led, Godello, Verdejo, Xarel-lo and others have followed. Today, whites from Galicia in particular and northern Spain in general are resonating with US consumers. With a little help from their friendly retailers and restaurateurs.
“Northwestern whites, Godello in particular, and Xarel-lo out of Catalunya have done well for us,” says Andy Booth, owner of three Spanish Table wine stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. Still, “whites are a little more of a ‘hand sell’ [than reds] outside of Albariño or Godello.”
On both coasts, though, the range of Spanish whites at stores and restaurants is exponentially broader than even five or 10 years ago. Whether seeking out crisp Viuras from Rioja or rich Garnacha Blanca from Priorat, wine enthusiasts are increasingly aware that Spain has started exporting “some truly world-class whites,” as Booth puts it.
“A lot of consumers still have a mindset that Spanish wines are inexpensive,” Booth says, so when encountering a more expensive white, they’ll go ‘really? that much?’ But we also have customers who are used to buying more expensive domestic or French whites, and they have no problem spending $30 or $40 for a white.”
Raij says her guests also have become more adventurous — it might help that one of her restaurants is called Txikito — with varieties such as Maturana Blanca from Rioja or Txakoli, which also has given Americans an entryway to Spanish whites. “Both Albariño and Txakoli when they first came out here, with bracing acidity and made in unripe style,” Raij says, “that sort of resonated with people, these cold-climate wines.”
Ironically, Albariño’s success has made it a less reliable buy for American consumers. With Txakoli, Godello and other whites, buyers know what style of wine they’re getting. But, according to Raij “Albariño’s profile has changed a lot, with a huge range of styles and quality standards that have done it a disservice. The expectation and delivery are not always there. Albariño has served its purposes but now has done itself a disservice.”
Still, it remains the most popular Spanish white in America, and a major reason is its food-friendly nature. “My usual line is that if it swims, scoots, or crawls in water, drink Albariño with it,” says Chuck Kanski, owner of the Spain-centric store Solo Vino in St. Paul, Minnesota. “I believe this wine to be the greatest white to pair with any style or type of seafood."
But while the ascendance of whites has unfolded rapidly in some parts of the United States, in other regions these wines remain a “hand sell.”
“I’ve been saying for years that Albariño is the grape that America needs to try,” says Richard Gonzmart, the fourth-generation owner of the enormously popular Columbia chain of Spanish restaurants in Florida, “but we still have to educate our customers. “A lot of Americans still don’t know much about Spanish wine. They’ll say ‘oh, I love sangria.’ ”
Gonzmart credits the Martin Codax brand with providing an introduction to not only Albariño but Spain’s other indigenous white grapes. But he admits that Americans’ preference for more familiar grape varieties has altered his emphasis a bit.
“People like to say ‘Pinot Noir’ and ‘Chardonnay.’ It comes off sounding elegant,” Gonzmart said. “But when they don’t know a grape like Verdejo, they have a hard time trying it. So often as Americans we look at price point, and if we haven’t heard of the grape or the region, we go to something more familiar.”
So even though Columbia has 12 Verdejos on its wine list (“probably too many,” he said with a chuckle), Sauvignon Blancs from Martínez Bujanda in La Mancha and Chardonnays from Torres in Penedès have proven more popular. The Sauvignon Blanc is “a great value [and] captures the freshness” of Spanish whites, Gonzmart explains.
But Gonzmart, whose restaurants sell more Cava than any other US outfit (more than 5,000 cases a year) is continuing to promote the native grapes. “I brought in a Viura some years ago, and people weren’t buying it,” he said. “We are attempting to reintroduce Viura. We’re working with a lot of smaller bodegas all over Spain.
“We have to bring awareness to all the grapes, to let people know that the wines of Spain each have their own character. I tell customers, ‘you never know who you’re going to marry until you meet them.’ ”
Bill Ward writes about wine for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and at www.decant-this.com