The other night at Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica there was a wine dinner of sorts. Which is to say a number of tables were pushed together to form a single surface, and a dozen strangers gathered to share heaping plates of cured salame and Idiazabal cheese, razor clams drenched in lemon and parsley, braised lamb and spicy chorizo stew. By the end of the evening strangers were friends, and a chilly spring evening seemed much warmer.
I couldn't help thinking how different a meal like this was from one in a French restaurant: no tablecloths, no gleaming silver, no froufrou service. The first two courses were eaten more or less with fingers and toothpicks, and used napkins were dispensed onto the floor, as is done in Bilbao or Barcelona, Spain. One may question the politesse of such acts, but no one could question the meal's lack of airs.
And into our tumblers was poured a Spanish white that seemed to herald spring as few wines could, the Do Ferreiro "Cepas Vellas" Albarino, from 200-year-old vines in Rias Baixas, Galicia, Spain. The wine was a glorious mess of contradictions: as profound as Grand Cru Burgundy yet immediately accessible like a house pour; bracing and complex, lashed with minerals and lees, and yet it seemed as warm and welcoming as fresh-baked bread.
In the end the wine, like the meal, was all about ease and comfort, about greeting warmer days with something fresh and inviting in your glass, as so many Spanish whites do.
Spain's well-earned reputation for toothsome red wines has obscured somewhat the extraordinary leaps in quality that its white wines have made for the better part of two decades. Styles have generally shifted from inward and fusty to bright and racy, pristine wines from indigenous varieties possessing a warm, open-armed immediacy, perfect for spring meals.
Rias Baixas and Ribeiro
The white wine renaissance began in Galicia, a part of "Green Spain," the coastal areas that escape the punishing heat and desert-like conditions of the inner plains and valleys. In Galicia, that means the wine regions of Rias Baixas and Ribeiro, which have ignited worldwide interest in Albarino, as well as other indigenous varieties such as Treixadura, Godello and Loueira.
Rias Baixas hugs the coastal areas from the Mino River north to the rugged, granite-inflected soils of O Salnes and O Rosal, which are fully exposed to ocean blasts. While there is some experimentation in the region with oak aging and richer, more malolactic-driven styles, the best wines are the most unadorned, from entry-level Albarinos such as Martin Codax and Burgans, to the more minerally, complex wines from the Do Ferreiro stable. Sadly, "Cepas Vellas" is always scarce in the market, but Do Ferreiro's regular Albarino is more readily available, as is a lively, citrusy blend, "Rebisaca."
Travel upriver along the Mino River and you'll pass through Ribeiro, a tiny, breathtakingly vertiginous appellation that is perhaps Spain's most resurgent for white wines. The region is less reliant on Albarino than Rias Baixas, using Treixadura and Godello more often, providing a broader, fleshier framework for the wines with pronounced leesy, biscuity overtones -- something Treixadura seems to accentuate -- to adorn rich pear and citrus notes.
The majestic blends of Emilio Rojo are perhaps the pinnacle of the region -- and at Burgundy prices, you'll pay dearly for it. But more affordable Ribeiro can be found from Vina Mein, into which seven indigenous varieties are blended, or the citrusy blend of Treixadura and Torrontes from Bodegas do Campo.
North of Rias Baixas, coastal Spain makes a dogleg east in the direction of the continent, along the northern coast that forms the Biscay Bay. In the Basque hills above Bilbao and San Sebastian, the ocean influence is effectively cradled by the western thrust of the Pyrenees, forming another green belt, the regions gathered under the name Txakoli.
It is hard to imagine a friskier white wine category than the Txakolis of Basque Spain, as represented by two denominations of origin, Bizkaiko Txakolina and Getariako Txakolina. Nearly all of the whites are made with the indigenous Hondaribi Zuri, a brisk, herbaceous variety that captures a host of "green" scents: lime, parsley, scallion, lemon thyme, green apple.
If the Galician whites are a brisk caress, Txakoli whites are a relative slap in the face. The wines are bottled young to capture primary green-fruited flavors of lime zest, melon and star fruit; the textures are dry, minerally and bracing, usually including a mouthwatering prickle of effervescence, which gives them the thirst-quenching power of a lager.
Txakoli is a marvelous wine for shellfish, and its low alcohol makes it well suited to gulping down on a hot afternoon as well. Three brands are prevalent in the market: The Txakoli Getariakos from Ameztoi and Txomin Etxaniz, and the bracing Bizkaiko Txakolina from Gurrutxaga should be mandatory for every spring picnic basket.