The wines on the list at Martin Berasategui’s three-star restaurant just outside San Sebastian are first class, but instead of spelling out their formal appellations, the list groups them in much more sweeping geographical units. This can be frustrating for vinous train spotters like me, but it did open my eyes to a category of wines that I know I love individually, but had never before realised was indeed a group – chiefly perhaps because they are made in three different countries.
In Martin B’s white wine section are two or three pages of wines described as Vinos Atlanticos – all them wonderfully bracing, distinctive wines with very different local personalities but all given exciting tension by the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean. Grown in isolated vineyards on a great sweep of land from the far south western corner of France round the northern coast of Spain even as far as the far north of Portugal, they share a seriously refreshing spine of acidity, the interesting aromas of indigenous and relatively unknown grape varieties, minimal oak influence and relatively low alcohol – Anything But Chardonnay indeed.
Here are the principal Atlantic Whites, from west to east.
The river Minho forms the east-west border between between Portugal and Spain and it specialises in producing ‘green wines’, wines made to be drunk young and fresh, as most Atlantic Whites are. Annual rainfall here is about three times higher than the minimum generally needed to ripen a crop of vines and the vines have tended to be trained up high and then on horizontal pergolas so that the grapes hang free of vegetation and ocean breezes can minimize the dangers of rot and other fungal diseases. The Vinho Verde regulations even set a maximum permitted alcohol level of 11.5 per cent – anything stronger than this has to be sold as a Minho wine.
The result of all this, and the fact that growers have tended to have mixed smallholdings rather than be wine specialists, has been a very high proportion of rather ordinary wine, but an increasing amount of seriously interesting, properly fruity wine is now being produced in the green, Atlantic-washed Minho valley with producers such as Quinta do Ameal and Quinta de Covelha leading the way. (In the UK both these last two are imported by Corney & Barrow, London E1.) Loureiro is the characteristic grape variety and to me really does smell like laurel leaves – although I am quite prepared to accept that this is auto-suggestion.
Spain’s wine country just across the Miño, as the river is called here, faces similar challenges to those in Vinho Verde land, except that the terrain is a bit more varied and Galicia’s fashionable white wine region Rías Baixas has several distinct subzones along the west coast with its shellfish and multiple shallow fjords. Val do Salnes, 40 to 50 miles north of the Miño around the town of Cambados, make some of the most delicate wines. The usefully-thick-skinned Albariño is the signature grape here – in fact the name Albariño is much more celebrated in Madrid and Barcelona than that of Rías Baixas - although Loureiro is grown to a limited extent, just as Alvarinho is not unknown in Portugal.
The wines really do taste marine and manage to pack an impressive amount of distinctly pure, sometimes citrus-flavoured fruit into the bottle, particularly where yields, always relatively generous, are kept in check. Some producers, notably the highly regarded Fillaboa, make oaked versions as well as unoaked ones but so far I have been just as charmed, if not more so, by the unoaked ones.
Lagar de Cervera, Lusco de Miño, Pazo de Barrantes, Pazo de Señorans and the tiny Do Ferreiro are all thoroughly reliable labels, and this last is now making a special creamy, almost peachy bottling, Tomada do Sapo. Sainsbury’s Classic Selection Albariño 2004, due in next month, is a good buy at £5.99 from Lagar de Fornelos.
Txakoli in the Basque language, Chacoli in Castilian, is perhaps the most extreme version of these crisp, light wines – so extreme in fact that in the wrong hands it can taste positively tart and vapid. The local Hondarrabi vines grown around Bilbao and San Sebastian need to be grown with care to produce grapes with real fruit as well as refreshing acidity and an alcohol level that is often well under 11 per cent.
Like Portugal’s Vinho Verde, these ‘green wines’ are served young, often even without a vintage on the label because only the last season’s crop is available. They are typically very slightly sparkling, with the carbon dioxide left over from fermentation still dissolved in the wine, and in the tapas bars of along Spain’s north coast Txakoli is traditionally poured from a great height into thin glass tumblers to be drunk as an appetite-whetter. You may not want to drink Txakoli thoughout a dinner, but as an aperitif it is in a class of its own. Txomin Etxaniz is probably the most reliable producer and the current, 2004 vintage costs a stiff £12 in the UK, but $15 in the US and 8 euros in Spain.
If Txakoli is the white wine of Spanish Basque country, Irouléguy is its French counterpart, made in picturebook green rolling farmland in the far western Pyrenees. Vineyards are few and far between and production is a tiny fraction of what it was before the phylloxera louse devastated France’s vines a century ago
As with all these Atlantic Whites, the 2003s made in the heatwave summer are delightfully fruity rather than heat-stressed and raisiny as in so many other, warmer wine regions of Europe, so naturally high in acidity are the wines (which is why the reds can be rather hard work).
Domaine Brana, imported by Champagne and Châteaux of London SW11, is the best-known producer, and has made a deliciously floral and refined 2003. The St Etienne co-op’s Xuri Dansa is perfectly respectable. One of the most interesting is the particularly refined Herri Mina made by Brana from his own vines in his homeland by Jean-Claude Berrouet, the longstanding winemaker at Ch Pétrus and other Jean Pierre Moueix properties in Pomerol and St-Emilion. John Armit Wines of London W11 list the rather old 2002 and the more successful 2000 at, respectively, £44.50 and £64.77 plus VAT for six bottles. The best buy is probably Cuvée Hegoxuri from Domaine Arretxea at £11.70 from Caves de Pyrène near Guildford which is so rich it is almost like a Jurançon.
The grapes that go into white Irouleguy, Courbu and the Mansengs, are also grown further inland in the equally green, but lower-altitude vineyards of Jurançon around Pau. Jurançon is another lovely wine but, being made so much further from the breakers of Biarritz, strictly qualifies not as an Atlantic Wine but a Pastoral one – another possible wine category perhaps?