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Could Albariño be the answer to Spain’s prayers?

With the variety showing increasing versatility in Rías Baixas – from young wines to aged, and even sparkling – could the future of Spain’s wine industry lie in this humble grape? Sarah Neish investigates.

Last year was by-and-large catastrophic for Spanish wine. This is no reflection on the country’s immensely skilled winemakers or its characterful indigenous grape varieties. Rather it was the result of a prolonged and unforgiving drought, which despite the Spanish Government ploughing €12 billion into fixing the problem, stuck around like the very driest conversationalist at a cocktail party.

At a Spanish Wine Academy event held in Chiswick last week, the drinks business discovered how even the north-west region of Galicia – typically one of the wettest in Spain – has felt the ramifications of the drought. However, recent learnings about one grape in particular could help to heave the Spanish wine industry out of the quicksand.

How one of the wettest parts of Spain is drying up

If ever there was a sign that global warming is creeping further north, it has to be the re-emergence in 2022 of a ‘ghost village’ in Galicia, which eerily appeared when a reservoir dried up as a result of the drought. Roofs, bricks and derelict buildings were uncovered as the water dissipated, as well as empty beer bottles stacked by what used to be a cafe, and a rusting car by a stone wall. The abandoned village of Aceredo had been flooded in 1992 to form the reservoir and its reappearance was a foreboding sign of things to come.

A couple of hours north of the ghost village, in Rías Baixas, lies Mar de Frades, one of the leading makers of Albariño wines in Spain. The producer has made some unusual discoveries in recent years about the variety’s suitability for producing different styles of wine, including fizz, with Mar de Frades having released the world’s first sparkling Albariño (more on that later).

“Galicia is always raining so I didn’t think that climate change would be an issue for us,” Paula Fandiño, technical director and manager at Mar de Frades, told the drinks business. “But we used to harvest in the third week of September, sometimes even in October, and last year we began picking on 25 August.”

In the past, she said, Albariño “wasn’t a very productive variety but with the rising temperatures – even 1°C higher – I’ve noticed it has become much more productive.”

This is not necessarily a good thing. As Fandiño puts it: “Sometimes quality and quantity are at odds”, and it’s worth noting that the yield currently permitted by the Rías Baixas DO is limited to 12,000 kilos per hectare.

The second thing Fandiño spotted regarding climate change was the increasing need for irrigation, even with all that Gallic rain. Fortunately thick-skinned Albariño proves spectacularly resistant to fungal diseases in much the same way as a frog’s leathery skin repels water.

“Irrigation wasn’t necessary in our vineyards until the last five years,” she told db. “But Albariño is a grape that needs a lot of water and we have had to install drip irrigation. Understanding how water can be good, and not so good, for the grapes is the most important thing.”

Alcohol levels, too, are creeping up in Albariño.

“Ten years ago the wines were about 12.5% ABV. Now they are more like 13%,” said Fandiño, though the influence of the Atlantic ocean ensures wines retain an enviable freshness.

Ageing well

Buffered by the Atlantic and whipped by oceanic winds, Mar de Frades wines are renowned for their salinity, punctuated by balsamic notes from the pine and eucalyptus trees that carpet the surrounding mountains.

While most of its production – around 85% – is young wines, Fandiño has found that Albariño is capable of ageing extremely well and this, along with working with lees, has become a key differentiator for the brand, allowing Mar de Frades to take its wines “to the top level”. In the UK market its wines retail at around £17 per bottle.

“For me, Albariño is not a young variety,” she said. “We can make better wines with ageing, and uncover new aromas and flavours. We must be patient and wait.”

Mar de Frades is experimenting with ageing Albariño in both stainless steel and granite vats, the latter to reflect the granitic composition of its vineyard soils, and wines undergo battonage with fine lees for five months.

“About four years ago, we bought a big granite block that holds 2,000 litres,” Fandiño explained. “The walls are very thick and the amount of oxygen that passes across the granite is high, so three to four months is enough time for the wine to stay inside. The granite has “a big influence on the lees, more so than the stainless steel. There’s more micro-oxygenation so you can smell more aromatics.”

While another local producer is ageing its wines inside a granite egg, no one else has a piece of kit quite like Fandiño’s. “For the others to make their egg they cut several stones and glued them together, so obviously that changes how the wine reacts,” she said.

Sparkling success

One style of Albariño undergoing long ageing in Mar de Frades’ cellars is its traditional method sparkling wine – a world first – which the producer began making in 2009 and released to market in 2012.

“We wanted to express the saltiness from the Atlantic and our young fruit via bubbles,” Fandiño explained.

One style of its Brut Nature is aged for 36 months and a second for 60 months, the latter Fandiño admits may never be released commercially “as 60 months is a long time to keep a bottle in the cellar.”

Speaking of how Albariño expresses itself as a sparkling wine, she revealed: “Albariño gives a lot of foam. Other varieties are not so bubble-heavy, so we had to work on getting the bubbles smaller and smaller in the bottle.”

After ageing is complete, each bottle is riddled until the lees end in a point and are ready for disgorgement. The process is done by hand, and after the bottle is corked it rests for three months. The alcohol of the finished product hovers around 11-12%.

It begs the question: could sparkling Albariño help to plug some of the unmet demand for Cava, a category which has been brow-beaten by the recent drought?

With yields plummeting by more than 45%, Cava giant Freixenet decided in April to furlough 80% of its workers. The temporary measure saw more than 615 staff laid off “in order to deal with external factors and the force majeure caused by the serious drought,” the company said.

The varieties predominantly used in Cava production are Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo, and while Albariño is a thirsty grape that requires a lot of water, there can be no question that Galicia welcomes more rain than most regions, even during drought years. The average annual rainfall in Cava’s heartland – Penedes in Catalonia – ranges from 450 to 550 mm, whereas in Albariño’s heartland of Rías Baixas rainfall is 1,600 mm—nearly three times the national average rainfall in Spain.


Capable of making fizz, as well as young and aged expressions that respond well to different materials (stainless steel, granite etc) to offer diverse flavour characteristics, Albariño’s properties span the full gamut. The variety has big potential, but it needs a lot of water, which can be problematic in a drought.

Its versatility may explain why an additional 247ha of Albariño was planted in Spain between 2021 and 2022, bringing its total vineyard up to 6,380 in 2022. However, growers may wish to consider planting more to see Spain through what is likely to be a challenging decade, as it would only take one variety to survive the harvest to enable the production of several styles of wine.

Mar de Frades is exclusively distributed in the UK by Freixenet Copestick.


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