Portuguese Alvarinho vs Spanish Albariño

One grape, two countries. What's the difference between albariño and alvarinho? A discussion of the history and some recommendations to try.

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Vineyard in Salnes
Portugal and Spain share a peninsula, a border, and a lot of history.  This is particularly true in northern Portugal and the northwest corner of Spain known as Galícia, two regions with many geographic and linguistic similarities.  These similarities wind their way back into the wine both areas produce, each with their own unique, Iberian twist.
In Galícia, the two official languages are Spanish and galego, which descended from an ancient language spoken throughout northwestern Iberia up until the Middle Ages that scholars today call Galician-Portuguese. After the Kingdom of Portugal split from the Kingdom of León in present-day Spain, the languages diverged into galego and português, although speakers of both languages can still understand each other reasonably well.  Because of the influence of Spanish, galego sounds a bit like Portuguese spoken with a Spanish accent, which you can listen to here if you’re curious. (Totally unrelated fun fact: in Argentina, people from Spain are not called españoles, they’re called gallegos because so many Spanish immigrants to Argentina were from Galícia.)
What does this all have to do with wine?  Well, it’s a long way of saying that alvarinho and albariño are just the Portuguese and the galego/Spanish versions, respectively, of the word used to describe the same wine grape grown in this corner of the peninsula.  (It’s now also grown in a few other countries that I will be flatly ignoring as pretenders to the throne.)  As seen in the picture at the opening of this article, albariño/alvarinho vines are often grown from a simple trellis or pergola to protect the grapes from excessive moisture.
If you’ve already enjoyed this bright, mineral, lightly fruity white wine in the United States, it was most likely an albariño from Spain.  That’s because the US imports about three times as much wine from Spain as from Portugal, and most of the wine exported from Portugal is port, a fortified wine, not table wine.  However, if you’ve ever cracked open a bottle of Portuguese white wine, it might have been a blend that included alvarinho grapes.
Despite what US wine marketing might have led you to believe, being a “monovarietal” wine, or made 100% from a single type of grape, doesn’t necessarily mean the wine you’re drinking is good, and “blend” doesn’t mean it’s bad. If you think wine blends are inferior to varietals, then I have a cheap bottle of Bordeaux to sell you….
But this varietal vs blend distinction brings us to an important difference between albariño and alvarinho in Spain and Portugal:  the land, and how vineyards are planted.  To understand that, you first need to understand the difference between the terms Vinho Verde (in Portuguese) and Rías Baixas (in galego). 
In the mind of the average American, the idea of Spain probably conjures up images of sunny, warm weather and a dry climate.  The idea of Portugal…well, most Americans don’t even know where Portugal is, but if they do know something about the country, it’s likely to be about the gorgeous beaches of the Algarve. However, those references don’t reflect the weather and topography of Galícia and northern Portugal very well.  These areas are cooler, wetter, and greener than southern Portugal and Spain.  So, Vinho Verde and Rías Baixas – which are designated wine regions in Portugal and Spain where alvarinho and albariño are produced – are generally cool, wet, and green, too.
Wait, what?? Doesn’t Vinho Verde mean “green wine” because the wine has a greenish color? 
No.
Before we go on, a brief interlude on the meaning of Vinho Verde.
As mentioned, Vinho Verde is a designated wine region in Portugal, or DOC.  For the label on the wine bottle to carry the Vinho Verde DOC, or any other DOC for that matter – DOC stands for denominação de origem controlada, or protected designation of origin – the wine must meet certain production standards not required of regular table wine, which typically include a minimum quantity of certain Portuguese grape varietals grown in that DOC to be used in the wine.  Since Vinho Verde is a DOC, not a type of wine, Vinho Verde can be red, rosé, sparkling, and, of course, white. 
The origin story of the phrase vinho verde (green wine) that gave rise to the Vinho Verde DOC is unknown but may possibly be due to the fact that this region of northern Portugal does, indeed, look pretty green.  The wine, however, does not. 
Galicia
Galícia
Northern Portugal
Northern Portugal
[A digression from my digression: another possible explanation for the name revolves around the notion that an unripe fruit would be called verde in Portuguese, and unripe fruit tends to be more acidic than sweet, a taste characteristic of the overall flavor profile of Vinho Verde DOC whites in general.  Jury’s still out on this one.  Interestingly, it’s a common misconception, even in Portugal, that vinho verde wine comes from uvas verdes, or unripened grapes, instead of uvas maduras, or ripened grapes.  Actually, all wines are made from ripened grapes. If the grapes weren’t ripe, they wouldn’t have enough sugar to ferment into alcohol, meaning the “wine” wouldn’t be wine.  I’ve sat at more than one dinner table here where someone asked the waiter for a maduro, which literally means nothing since all wines are maduros, but a Portuguese waiter will intuitively understand this to mean “not a vinho verde.”]
Now, back to Vinho Verde vs Rías Baixas.
Like Vinho Verde, Rías Baixas is also a DOC (technically, just DO in Spanish but it’s the same idea).  Vinho Verde in Portugal is separated from Rías Baixas in Spain by the Minho River (Miño in Spain) at the border between northern Portugal and Galícia.  You might think that because these DOCs butt up against each other the wines produced in each are fairly similar.  However, compared to Rías Baixas, Vinho Verde is massive.  Vinho Verde is the largest DOC in Portugal, boasting 24,000 hectares of land, nine subregions, and at least a dozen primary grape varietals. By contrast, the Rías Baixas DOC – the Rías Baixas themselves are a group of estuaries, rivers with brackish water that eventually lead out into the sea – is only about 4,000 hectares with five subregions, so one-sixth the size. 
Rías Baixas was designated as a DOC in 1980, primarily for the cultivation of albariño grapes.  By contrast, Vinho Verde has been a legislatively protected wine region since 1908, though it didn’t become a DOC until later in the twentieth century.  However, it was not so christened for the express purpose of growing a specific varietal.  This is an important point that brings us back to the monovarietal wine versus wine blends issue. 
Historically, Portugal has been a wine-producing country based on wine blends, or vinhos de lote, the idea being that multiple varietals on the vine can better resist weather and temperature fluctuations throughout the year so that if one varietal, or casta, doesn’t make it, another one will and you won’t be stuck with a totally failed crop. It also means you’re able to take the best elements of each grape to smooth and round out each other in the final product.  Over time, as new vines got planted, it became impossible to know exactly what varietals were in the field. 
Now, none of this was a problem back in the day because people throughout Europe bought wine according to the region, not the grape.  However, that’s not true in markets like the United States, where people tend to buy “cabs” and chardonnays, not Bordeaux or Burgundy.  So, if you want to sell to ‘Merikans, you’re better off calling it alvarinho or albariño instead of by a regional designation only. 
Wine industry folks have observed that because the Vinho Verde DOC is much bigger than Rías Baixas, there is more variability in the quality of Vinho Verde wine and therefore a lot of it is “cheap.”  Personally, I think this perception has more to do with marketing than quality.
The Spaniards were savvy in setting up Rías Baixas to be a varietal powerhouse for albariño.  They knew which way the wind was blowing.  The Portuguese, by contrast, were late to the game.  You probably have never heard of it, but there is a sub-region of the Vinho Verde DOC with a unique microclimate perfect for alvarinho grapes that produces spectacular, 100% alvarinho wines.  It’s called Monção e Melgaço (pronounced mon-SOW ee mel-GAH-soo), but it’s only been a designated sub-region for about 20 years and has had less time to capitalize on the fact than Spain.  There’s something congenitally Portuguese to suck at marketing be excessively modest.
Now that you know more than you ever imagined possible about alvarinho/albariño, let’s get to the heart of the matter: do they taste different?  The answer is yes, but this comes down to the age-old question of terroir.
There’s no definitive evidence as to whether this grape originated in Portugal or Spain, though plenty of Spanish wine marketing will try to convince you that it’s quintessentially Spanish. Winemakers in Spain often call the Rías Baixas sub-region of Val do Salnés the “birthplace” of the grape, but don’t be fooled.  No one has any idea.
Since there isn’t any deeply scientific reason to believe that a particular area of the Vinho Verde or Rías Baixas DOCs holds the evolutionary key to alvarinho/albariño, we’re left with a scenario where this delicate grape grows well in many areas, but has different expressions in terms of the wine it produces.  For example, a bottle of Spanish albariño from the Val do Salnés sub-region of the Rías Baixas DOC, which lies along the Atlantic coast, will taste notably different from, say, the interior and warmer Condado do Tea sub-region of the DOC.  An albariño from Val do Salnés might even have a tang of sea salt to it, whereas albariño from Condado do Tea probably won’t have as much. Condado do Tea is right across the river from the Vinho Verde DOC and the sub-region of Moncão e Melgaço, the Portuguese heart of alvarinho, so we might expect to find that Portuguese alvarinhos from Moncão e Melgaço are somewhat more similar to albariños from Condado do Tea than either is to Val do Salnés.
All of this is to say that, like anywhere, wines can vary dramatically within a single country and region.  At the same time, different winemakers, even at the same vineyard with the same grapes, can still make very different wines.  So, holding constant the skill of the winemaker at a high level, there isn’t really any “better” or “worse” when it comes to this varietal.   There’s just…different.
I’ll wrap up here with a plug for Vinho Verde DOC wines in general, and a plea for you to appreciate the unique characteristics of alvarinho/albariño, but not get too hung up on its varietal-ness.
The first Vinho Verde I ever tried came from a cheap bottle picked up at a Trader Joe’s store in Chicago.  Considering that most Trader Joe’s wines were already cheap to begin with, this verde made Two-Buck Chuck seem positively lux.  When my not-yet-husband, Nuno, suggested, in all his Iberian wisdom, that we give it a go, I was skeptical.  A bottle of wine for $0.99?  How can that possibly be drinkable?  At Trader Joe’s, it should cost at least $3.00 to be worth bothering.
But after we chilled the wine and settled outside that long ago summer evening to drink it, I realized why I had never really been a huge fan of white wine before: because it wasn’t Vinho Verde.  Light, mineral, citrus and pear, with the faintest hint of carbonation – that I would only learn much later was actually the mark of a mass-produced verde  – I became a convert.  This was not a lugubrious, “oaky” California chardonnay that looked, and tasted, more like drawn butter than wine.  I knew, then, that I had found my people.  And my people were Portuguese. 
Although I didn’t know it at the time, most Vinho Verde wines are blends with some combination of loureiro (the most commonly cultivated grape in the DOC), trajadura, arinto, or alvarinho grapes, or a handful of other varietals.  They are all interesting and complex in their own right. Here’s my advice to you: if you really want to get ahead of the varietal crowd while still honing in on Iberia, try a Vinho Verde wine made from 100% loureiro grapes.  It’s primed to make it’s mark on the wine world, so get it while the getting’s good. The famed Portuguese winemaker Anselmo Mendes, widely known as “senhor alvarinho” in Portugal, is already on board
And for the love of all that is holy, the next time you’re thinking of ordering a bottle of some insipid pinot grigio, order an albariño instead.  Preferably, an alvarinho.

Wine Recs

Portugal

A classic of the genre, Soalheiro’s alvarinho is light and bright, but won’t make you pucker from the minerality. If you do want to pucker from the minerality, try their Granit.
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If you’re looking to branch out, try a loureiro from Aphros, a biodynamic and organic winemaker. You can read more about organic, vegan, “natural,” and biodynamic wines in Portugal here.
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Spain

The Spanish aren’t the only ones who think Val do Salnés is the birthplace of albariño, but regardless of its heritage, you should definitely give the sub-region a go.
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