A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Albarín Blanco - Tierra de Leon, Spain

A few months ago, reader Tony sent me an email asking if I'd ever had a wine made from the Albarín Blanco grape, and, furthermore, whether I knew if Albarín Blanco was the same grape as the much more well known Albariño.  His cursory research into the matter was inconclusive as some sources indicate that the grapes are identical to one another while others assert that they are separate varieties.  I'm always up for a challenge, so I decided to look into the matter a little bit to see what I could find.  I had always heard that the two grapes were identical, but I had never really investigated the matter in depth.

My first two lines of research are always Wikipedia and the Oxford Companion to Wine.  The latter source has no entry on Albarín Blanco while the former redirects you to the entry on Albariño.  This was interesting, but hardly conclusive, so next I checked out the VIVC database where I was surprised to find that there were separate entries for Albariño and Albarín Blanco, which is usually a solid indication that the grapes are indeed distinct from one another.  Given the conflict between the sources I had consulted to that point, I decided to check a few abstract databases to see if there were any studies published that looked at both Albarín Blanco and Albariño.

To my surprise, I was able to find quite a few different papers with DNA profiles for both grapes.  The first paper that I read (citation 1 below) was actually an ampelographical study which looked at the physical characteristics of a number of different vines in northwest Spain and concluded that the two vines looked different enough to be considered separate varieties.  The authors also examined the claim that Albarín Blanco was the same as the Albillo grape and were able to determine that they were separate grapes as well.  Ampelographical evidence is nice to have, but it's not really considered definitive in today's world of DNA analysis, so I moved on to the next paper (citation 2 below), which analyzed the DNA of a number of different grapes in northwestern Spain at 10 different microsatellite sites.  The results clearly showed that the two grapes were separate cultivars with distinct DNA profiles.  Somewhat tantalizingly, though, the profiles matched at one allele on 9 of the 10 sites analyzed, which may suggest some kind of relationship between the two grapes, though not a parent/offspring relationship.

Satisfied, I sent my findings back to Tony, who was excited by the answers that I found.  Tony had already tried a wine made from the grape and had found a lot of Sauvignon Blanc characteristics in it, so he decided to check the VIVC microsatellite database to see whether those two grapes might be related.  While there were a number of similarities, the data at the VIVC definitely indicated that there was no parent/offspring relationship between Sauvignon Blanc and Albarín Blanco.  Tony also decided to check Albarín Blanco against Savagnin, though, and, surprisingly, the two grapes matched one another at one allele on all six sites that the VIVC tracks.  This is suggestive of a parent/offspring relationship, but as we've mentioned here before, you need way more than six sites to determine those kinds of relationships, so I fired up the old search engines again and tried to find studies that might be able to link Savagnin with Albarín Blanco.

My search led me to a paper (citation 3 below) written by a Spanish research team who happened to notice that two sample vines (accessions) in the collection of the Mision Biologica de Galicia, which were both labeled as Albarín Blanco, actually looked very different from one another.  They suspected that these were two distinct vines, so they analyzed each of them.  They also analyzed a handful of other accessions that looked very similar to one of the Albarín Blanco vines (Albarín Blanc I) to see whether they were related as well.  What they found was that not only was the Albarín Blanco I vine distinct from the Albarín Blanco II vine, but the Albarín Blanco II vine was actually Savagnin!

The authors believe that Savagnin may have been brought into Spain in the late 19th Century by French wine technicians from Bordeaux.  These technicians came to show the locals how to graft vines onto native American rootstocks in order to thwart the phylloxera louse that had recently ravaged the vineyards of Europe.  They brought several different French vines with them, and it is thought that Savagnin could have been one of those vines.  Both Albarín Blanco and Savagnin share some physiological characteristics and both ripen early, so it is possible that growers confused the two vines and have just been calling both by the same name for years.  Coincidentally, it also turns out that much of what was grown in Australia as Albariño was later found to be Savagnin as well.  I can't find any evidence that the cases of mistaken identity have a common root cause, but the mind certainly swims with possibilities.

There was also a study published in 2003 (citation 4 below) that found that Albarín Blanco and Savagnin were identical.  The samples for this particular study both came from the El Encín in Madrid.  Readers with good memories may recall that an accession at the Encín was the result of all of the confusion surrounding Hondarrabi Zuri, as a sample mislabeled as Hondarrabi Zuri was actually an American hybrid grape called Noah.  The authors of the paper on Albarín Blanco and Savagnin say that while many of the vines at the Encín were collected by grapevine experts, towards the second half of the 20th Century, the institute began requesting vines from the Agricultural Authority of each province, rather than sending an expert into the fields to collect them.  In many cases, then, the person who was collecting the requested vine was not an expert, and it is thought that this led to many errors in naming in this collection.

All of which is interesting, but the original question that I had was whether Savagnin could possibly be a parent to Albarín Blanco.  I emailed the corresponding author on paper #3, but have not received any response.  I've also been unable to find anything definitive in the literature.  The closest thing I've found was a paper (citation 5 below) that analyzed 56 different grape varieties grown in the northwestern area of the Iberian peninsula, including both Albarín Blanco and Savagnin.  The study wasn't designed to check for parent/offspring relationships, but the authors do mention a few possible relationships between some of the grapes that they analyzed given the data that they acquired, but a possible relationship between Albarín Blanco and Savagnin is not mentioned.  This is merely suggestive evidence, but it makes me think that the two grapes probably aren't related.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2011 Villacezan "Elverite" Albarín Blanco from a store in the Pittsburgh, PA, area for about $9.  The wine is from the Tierra de Leon DO in northwestern Spain (map).  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was fairly intense with grapefruit, grapefruit peel, apricot and honeydew melon fruits along with a kind of grassy herbaceousness.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of white grapefruit, honeydew melon and grassy herbs along with a touch of salinity and a strong mineral finish.  Like Tony, I found a lot of similarities between this wine and a Sauvignon Blanc-based wine. The salinity and minerality really put this over the top for me and give it a kind of complexity that is very difficult to find at this price point.  It would be a slam-dunk with fresh oysters and lots of other seafood as well.  Sauvignon Blanc fans will find a lot to like here, as will fans of bright, fresh white wines.


1) Martinez, MC, & Perez, JE.  2000.  The forgotten vineyard of the Asturias Princedom (north of Spain) and ampelographic description of its grapevine cultivars (Vitis vinifera L.).  American Journal of Enology & Viticulture, 51(4), pp 370-378.

2) Gago, P, Santiago, JL, Boso, S, Alonso-Villaverde, V, Stella Grando, M, & Carmen Martinez, M.  2009.  Biodiversity and characterization of twenty-two Vitis vinifera L. cultivars in the northwestern Iberian peninsula.  American Journal of Enology & Viticulture, 60(3), pp 293-301.

3) Santiago, JL, Boso, S, Vilanova, M, & Carmen Martinez, M. 2005.  Characterisation of cv. Albarín Blanco (Vitis vinifera L.).  Synonyms, homonyms and errors of identification associated with this cultivar.  Journal International des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin, 39(2), pp 57-65.

4) Martin, JP, Borrego, J, Cabello, F, & Ortiz, JM.  2003.  Characterization of the Spanish diversity of grapevine cultivars using sequence-tagged microsatellite site markers.  Genome, 46, pp 10-18.

5) Martin, JP, Santiago, JL, Pinto-Carnide, O, Leal, F, Carmen Martinez, M, & Ortiz, JM.  2006.  Determination of relationships among autochthonus grapevine varieties (Vitis vinifera L.) in the northwest of the Iberian peninsula by using microsatellite markers.  Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 53, pp 1255-1261.


Anonymous said...

Savagnin is of interest, also found in the Jura region where wines found might be in the oxidised style.

Bob Alberta.

Bibulous said...

Oddly, on its website (http://www.villacezan.com/) the winery does not list Albarin Blanco among the grapes it cultivates. The winery says the "Elverite" wine cited in this post is "100% Verdejo." I wonder if this label was applied by the winery or an importer.

Bibulous said...

To further muddy the waters, Google Maps shows another winery just down the street from Villacezan that makes a "Peregrino Cuvee" whose label reads (you guessed it) "100% Albarin."


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