Wine: Iberian summer whites

Iberian Summer WhitesSummertime brings the pleasure of lazing on the deck with a cold bottle of wine in easy reach and another waiting for dinner. For this month, a lighter wine for sipping and something with a bit more character for the meal.

Wine has been produced on the Iberian Peninsula, now occupied by Spain and Portugal, for more than four millennia, but many of the region’s wines were not very widely distributed until the last couple of decades. Things changed dramatically after the two countries joined the European Union: There was a major influx of capital into the wine industry, and techniques in the vineyards and wineries were improved rapidly. The white wines produced on the Atlantic coast, just north or south of the border between Portugal and Spain, have benefited from these developments, are particularly suited to the summer, and are achieving a deserved popularity.

On the Portuguese side, the wine region is known as Vinho Verde (Green Wine), named because the wine should be drunk young—not for its color (there are both reds and whites), nor because its production is environmentally sensitive! The white grapes (Loureiro, Trajadura, plus a few others) are virtually unknown outside the region, but the wines they produce are light, crisp, and refreshing. The levels of sugar in the grapes are relatively low, so the wines contain less alcohol (9-10.5%) than the 14.5% in a typical Californian Chardonnay.

Different producers have different styles, so it’s easy to find one that appeals. All make excellent aperitifs, and the more complex ones work with the lighter fish dishes. The Opala comes from a major producer and is a traditional Vinho Verde—a light wine with delicate fruit, a slight citrus aroma, and a hint of spritz on a dry finish. The Arca Nova, made by a smaller family winery, is more individual—there is more fruit flavor, and it’s less overtly dry. Last, the Encostas do Lima, made by a cooperative of several small growers, aims for a greater complexity, with an elegant balance between fruit flavors and a smoother finish than the other two. It’s worth a bit extra.

Albarino is the major grape across the Spanish border, in the region known as Rias Baixas, and is one of the few Spanish white wines bottled as a single varietal. The wines can be sipped as an aperitif and enjoyed at dinner; here too, there are clearly different styles. Many of the major producers are cooperatives, some involving literally hundreds of small growers, one of which is Condes de Albarei. Their Salneval (from the Salnes Valley on the coast at the northern end of the region) is made from young vines, so it’s on the lighter side, making it an attractive introduction to the grape. It has the characteristic orchard fruit aroma, with a hint of honey, and a crisp citrus finish ideal for seafood.

Valminor purchased established vineyards and built their own modern winery just over a decade ago. The older vines make their Albarino a more intense wine. It has a darker straw color than the Salneval, and the aromas and flavors are more intense, so it could also accompany the lighter meat dishes. For a more sophisticated wine, try the Do Ferreiro that comes from vineyards owned by the same family for generations. This is the smoothest and most balanced of these Albarinos, the result of great care in the vineyard and careful blending of wines from different parcels of the property. Inevitably, it costs a little more than the first two.


WHERE TO FIND THEM (Distributors in parenthesis)

Vinho Verdes:

  1. Opala (Aleph) is $10 at Down the Hatch;
  2. Arca Nova (Grapevine) is $9 at Belfair Fine Wines and Rollers and on the wine list at Aqua; and
  3. Encostas do Lima (Advintage) is $12 at A Wine and Spirit Shop and Rollers.
  4. Salneval (Carolina Wine Source) is $13 at A Wine and Spirit Shop, Belfair Fine Wines, and Rollers, and on the list at Sunset Grill;
  5. Valminor (Advintage) is $19 at A Wine and Spirit Shop and Rollers, and on the list at Aqua and The Studio; and 6. Do Ferreiro (Advintage) is $24 at A Wine and Spirit Shop and Rollers, and on the list at Alexander’s and Charlie’s l’Étoile Verte.

Iberian Summer Whites

Have a wine question? Reach columnist Chris Widnell at