Decanter Sept

It's that time again: time for another summery Decanter, like this one for September:

As befits summery themes, our lead story is one of the panel-topping, Outstanding, 95-point Albariños/Alvarinhos in a comparative review of that grape in Spain and Portugal, for just £15.50. In fact, it's one of the Portuguese representatives and is quite different (in my/our view) from any of the Galician Albariños you might encounter. Stick around, and we'll explain.

The wines featured this month in Decanter - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page. The reviews for each wine (where we've been able to show them) appear on each product page.


Albariño and Alvarinho

In the world of white wine, Albariño has arguably been the story in the UK in the last ten (maybe fifteen) years. It's gone through that life cycle of Unknown -> Discovered -> Painfully Trendy -> Mainstream. You'll find it almost everwhere now; there are few supermarkets or independent wine merchants that don't offer a selection. (Painfully Trendy these days, FYI, just about and still, is Godello).

One thing to get clear as we get under way: Albariño and Alvarinho. Same grape entirely, just different names either side of the Spain/Portugal border. There are stylistic differences - often - between the wines, as with Syrah and Shiraz (although I'd say that the differences between the latter pair are more pronounced by far). Those differences are precisely what this panel test looks at.

In what may be initially seen as something of a "Ratner moment", I'll confess to not being a huge fan of Albariño (sticking to just one name for now) in (note this) its most immediately-available form. Albariño is famed for its aromatic nose (blossom, flowers, grapefruit/apple etc) and its lighter refreshment value. As a light, summery, seafoody wine, I see its value. The problem for me is that it is often too light and too summery. I have often used the term flibbertigibbet to describe much Albariño, and I stand by that. I have often found it just a slightly more attractive version of Muscadet. My Prettier Half loves the stuff: I defy you to try stopping her ordering it when faced with a restaurant wine list. But for me, it's just a bit too zingy, simple and lightweight. Honestly, I like just a bit more heft to my whites.

That can be achieved with Albariño. As with Muscadet (and many lighter whites, on relection), you can make it more interesting and add some weight, concentration, complexity and texture by any or all of:

  • Extended skin contact/maceration;
  • Use of oak, be that as barrel fermentation or barrel ageing, or both;
  • Lees contact/ageing (aka sur lie [Fr] or sobre lias [Sp]).

The norm of these three is lees ageing. Not only does it impart a creaminess and complexity to both nose and palate, but it also greatly extends the ageing potential of the wine, allowing a whole raft of tertiary/development characteristics to emerge, particularly the whole almonds/nuttiness thing. A great example of this was the amazing La Fillaboa 1898 from the 2010 vintage, now alas all gone here and everywhere.

Oak is occasionally used, but, as with Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis and Riesling (the last of which is said, albeit rather inconclusively, to be related to Albariño), the heady combination of strong citric flavours/high acidity with oak (especially if new oak) can be a bit too much for many consumers.

A good number of the upper wines in this Decanter review have drawn upon these tactics to enhance the wines.

Perhaps the key (and ostensible) focus of the panel is to constrast the Portuguese Alvarinhos with the Spanish Albariños. The latter are almost all from Rias Baixas in Galicia, now seen as the heartland of Albariño worldwide. The Portuguese contingent are from across the border in the Vinho Verde region.

Wait! Vinho Verde!? What? Are these Vinho Verdes?

Well, technically, legally and in labelling terms: yes, they are. They are from that region, best known for its low-alcohol, greenish, often spritzy, super-acidic ultra-light wines (I do not like Vinho Verde; it really is too light and, to me, often feels like it has just emerged from a SodaStream).

However, sub-regionally, these reviewed Alvarinhos are mostly from Monção & Melgaço, an area now much respected for its quality work with this grape ... to which this review much testifies.

Stand down: please now set aside any Vinho Verde collywobbles you may be having.

The article looks at stylistic differences between Albariño and Alvarinho. It is a generalisation, but a pattern broadly exists. In broad terms, Albariño/Alvarinho is a coolish-climate grape. Give it too much heat and it does not give of its best. The Portuguese wines tend to derive their cooler climate from altitude (albeit slight); the Spaniards achieve it more by their location to a cool ocean and maritime breezes. If anything, the Portuguese hills create cooler climes than the Spanish coast (soils in both regions, for the best wines, are similar: granitic).

And this feeds through to the wines, as emerges in our Outstanding Portuguese below. In general, the Portuguese wines are leaner, tighter and - to the extent you go with this concept - more mineral. The Rias Baixas Albariños are a little more plush and ripe. Nonetheless, they (the Rias Baixas wines) remain tighter-wound and less generous than some of the New World Albariños out there, most notably this one and this one.

Results... and a warning

  • 83 wines went under test.
  • 7 emerged as Outstanding (95+), split 4 Spain + 3 Portugal.
  • Another 29 emerged as Highly Recommended (90+), split fairly equally Spain/Portugal.

But here's the thing, before the Albariño fans get too excited about an impending bonanza. Few of these wines are still available in their rated vintages. We make it two - possibly three - that can still be found. We know this because we did our utmost to track them down.

How does this happen?

There's been quite a delay - virus-driven - from a) panel tasting to b) results being announced to c) publication of this review. In many cases, a good summer of white wine sales has seen these wines - many of them produced in small quantities, remember - stripped from shelves across the UK. In many cases, it's now the next vintage (from that reviewed) which can be tracked down. In one case (the Granbazan), the rated vintage is still a year away from being landed in the UK (!!!).

Our top wine

What we offer is one of the 95-point Alvarinos from Portugal.

We have around 200 bottles in immediate stock; up to another 600 bottles will be available after these have sold but not until they arrive in late September (we will run a waiting list for these; we won't take your money until they are a week or so away).

That wine is the Quinta de Santiago Alvarinho 2019, grown and produced in Monção & Melgaço.

Counter to the tasting note of one of the panel judges (see below), it sees no oak, but it does see 8-10 months of lees ageing (the time variation arising in fractions of the total blend).

We carried out our own video tasting ...

... and here's what Decanter had to say:

For those not disposed to watching our video, here's our key points:

  • Aromatic in classic style, but a llttle muted and more citric than many Albariños;
  • Very dry; acidity is high and residual sugar very low ...
  • ... lending the wine a great tension (a la fine dry Riesling in that regard) ...
  • ... and making it very good with food (especially oily and fatty ones - I tasted it with sardines and flash-fried chorizo and it was truly excellent);
  • Definite creamy hints on nose and palate, which must stem from the lees work;
  • Really quite complex - there are layers to this wine;
  • Fruitwise, very zesty and citric (lemon, grapefruit, maybe lime) - this isn't the stone fruit-y hit often found in riper Galician Albariños;
  • Many will say this has a mineral streak to it (I dislike this term; I simply say it is very dry);
  • It has a big finish and great persistence to it - it's a highly concentrated set of flavours;
  • It may just need a little longer in bottle to reach its peak and for the acidity to be tamed slightly (that said, it is, as above, just right with food right now!).
  • Kept well, it will certainly age 6-8 years from now, and quite probably more.

If you want to contrast the Santiago with a top-scoring Rias Baixas wine from this review, we can't help you, as detailed.

We do, however, offer one that was one of the few 97-point Bests in Show at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Wards (DWWA21), which arrived with us today (Friday 30th July).

It's Bodegas Aguiuncho's Mar de Ons 2020 which DWWA21 praised for its "its fragrance and its vivacity, its lightness and its elegance, its pungency and its pithiness. This variety’s home is around the northwestern tip of Iberia, though the Portuguese Minho versions are subtly different to those of Galicia. In its exuberance, charm and evident seafood-friendliness, this is a perfect example of the latter. Look out for scents of green apple, quince and grapefruit, while the flavours suggest not just citrus fruits but their peels and skins too. It retains all that aromatic force to the last drop, and leaves the mouth still cleaner than it found it". 

Bodegas Aguiuncho

Mar de Ons Albariño

Rias Baixas, Spain 2020



Beyond, it's a quiet month for us, but we do offer:

  • The Secret de Leoube 2020 from Chateau Leoube in a Top 30 of Provence rosés by Elizabeth Gabay MW.
  • A tiny remaining amount of the Il Poggione Brunello (alas much all gone everywhere now!) from a look at Brunellos in 2016;
  • The Fontanafredda Asti (fizz) NV in a review on the whites of Asti; and
  • The two DWWA21-winning wines from De Wetshof - the Bataleur and the brilliantly-priced Lesca - in a look at the South African winners at/of DWWA21.


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