Illustration by Sushrut Royyuru

Week 7: B versus V, the clash of three Iberian whites

Source: Ben Owen

Cazas Novas Alvarinho 2019, Minho, £10 as tested

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Faustino Rivero Albariño
Sainsbury’s, £12 as tested

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño Rías Baixas
Waitrose, £12 as tested

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Over the last six weeks, the articles published under The Weekend Wine List have all ended up following a predictable structure. A dose of typically British self-deprecating humour helps to set the atmosphere, before seamlessly giving way to an exploration of the chosen wine’s backstory and tasting notes. If I’m feeling particularly generous, I might even throw in links to other bottles worth considering.

Rules are, however, made to be broken. And with three whites from the Iberian Peninsula going head-to-head for this penultimate instalment in the series, there is not a moment to lose.

For most, countries like Spain and Portugal evoke memories of golden beaches and scorching heat in a time long before Covid-19. It is precisely the sort of climate that helps give Weekend One’s Tarima from Alicante its rich, juicy, and distinctively alcoholic punch. Yet tucked away in the north-westerly corner of Spain also lies an oft-overlooked comunidad whose thick woodland, variable temperatures and copious rainfall strike as much of a contrast with the rest of the country as its regional language and culture.

Alongside the bordering slice of northern Portugal, I do concede that Galicia’s weather might not appeal to the typical, sun-deprived tourist, but it is exactly the reason why the region has become something of a winemaking phenomenon. As the ever-increasing variety of delicate reds and dry whites suggests, those same conditions are just what growers are after.

No need to take my word for it, though. Offerings from better-known appellations each side of the border can now be found on sale here in the UK and are even finding success on supermarket shelves – probably for the sweet spot they strike between exclusivity and value for money.

Intrigued but still a touch apprehensive? I wholly understand. And to settle any viticultural doubts, there is nothing quite like a back-to-back taste test.

Look carefully at the three bottles in this weekend’s line-up, and you might notice that they share one thing in common: the Albariño grape. Dry and light yet evocative and flavoursome, the planting is easily Galicia’s most celebrated contribution to the world of whites. It’s also a blend I have personally grown to cherish, with each sip still taking me back to happier moments in sun-filled prazas and restaurantes whilst working as a translator in the region over a gap year. Sainsbury’s Faustino Rivero and Waitrose’s Palacio de Fefiñanes are both traditional expressions from the Rías Baixas denominación: a legally-protected chunk of land in western Galician whose undulating hills and proximity to the sea have received great acclaim from wine critics.

Of course, Portuguese vineyards have not been oblivious to the success of their northern neighbours. Keen to get in on a slice of the action, a few growers with similarly suitable soils and microclimates have opted to plant Alvarinho vines in place of the native Vinho Verde. Different spelling, but the same grape. Cazas Novas is a perfect example of this new-found trend in action and whilst the Minho name it bears does not carry as much prestige, it can for the same reason represent superior value for money.

When it comes to tasting the wines, these nuances make for a fascinating experience. Even if the biological product going into the bottle is identical, the slight variations in growing techniques, sunlight exposure, and geology alone are responsible for the array of subtly different notes.

Let’s begin with Palacio de Fefiñanes. Poured into a glass, the first thing to note is the colour. The wine comes out as a semi-translucent gold, somewhat reminiscent of Weekend Three’s Jurançon Sec in its depth and body, but be prepared for tangy notes of pink grapefruit on the nose.

Even before drinking the stuff, the contrast with a glass of Faustino Rivero or Cazas Novas is noticeable. The former and fellow Galician counterpart is undoubtedly the lightest of the three in appearance and aroma – think honeydew melon with fresh floral sprigs – whereas the offering from Portugal sits somewhere between the two, as a modest gold liquid evoking unwaxed limes and ripe sugarcane.

The differences continue when you take the glass’s rim to your lips. Perhaps the best way to understand the trio’s tasting notes is by placing them on a tartness scale. In doing so, it is now the Minho which ranks at one extreme. The Alvarinho has a distinct and dominant blueberry-esque acidity that fizzles excitably on the tongue, before giving way to a prolonged, full-bodied, and woody aftertaste. Comparisons with the aforementioned Jurançon Sec would not be out of place in this regard, yet I must commend the overall maturity and dynamism of the Iberian blend.

If you want something to perplex the wine know-it-all at a dinner party whilst still complementing a seafood dish brilliantly, look no further than a bottle of Cazas Novas.

One step down on the tartness scale, and you will find the Faustino Rivero. The honeydew melon notes we first identified on the palate continue in the wine’s main body, simultaneously fusing with touches of lemon and plantain to create a refined, elegant, and crisp drink. Compared to the Portuguese blend the acidity and aftertaste are both significantly tamer – allowing the drink to be enjoyed as an aperitif without accompaniment.

For the most authentic expression of a Galician Albariño in all its understated glory, Sainsbury’s are onto a winner with this iconic blue bottle.

Last but not least, we turn our attention to the Palacio de Fefiñanes: the perfect choice for a New World wine lover. To my taste buds, this bottle is closer to an off-dry than it is a true, flinty, dry white wine. This is because although the honeydew primary notes are almost identical to the other expression from Rías Baixas, the acidity provided by a tangerine peel zest is even more clipped back – producing a drinking experience that teeters towards the sweeter side. With a golden apple finish, those with a taste for more subdued Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs will be bound to enjoy.

Three expressions, two spelling variations, one grape.

In the battle of Albariño with a ‘B’ versus Alvarinho with a ‘V’, I’ll let your taste buds decide the winner.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.