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The flagship wine of Spanish whites

Albarino ("ahl-bah-REEN-yoh") is a refreshing Spanish white wine with plenty of fruit, aroma and summery zing. Ground zero for albarino is Rias Baixas (REE-as bye-SHAHS), an oceanside wine region in the northwestern province of Galicia.

While the region has only 8,650 acres of wine grape vines, Rias Baixas has developed such a fine reputation over the last few decades that it is the only white wine denominacion de origen, or appellation, in Spain.

The flavor of Rias Baixas wines can range from crisp and clean in the northern portion of the region to rich and aromatic in the south.

Emilio Rodriguez, winemaker for Bodegas Terras Gauda, explained in an e-mail from Spain what makes his region so distinctive.

"We have a special terroir (sense of place) with very unique weather and soil conditions," he wrote. The climate is wet but with consistent temperatures, he said, while the soils are the most acidic in Spain.

"The varieties we work with are totally adapted to our terroir since they are (indigenous to) this region," Rodriguez added. "The albarino grape and the other varieties ... have very distinctive aromas and give fresh acidity and good structure to the wines, which is not easy to find in young white wines."

Rias Baixas wines are not the cheapest of whites, but a good selection is available in the $15-$20 range. The albarino vine generally has low yields and is expensive to cultivate, according to The Wines of Spain, an arm of the New York-based Trade Commission of Spain.

So why should American consumers buy these whites? Rodriguez points to their authenticity and character.

"Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are leaders in the market, and albarino is a great alternative with great quality and affordable pricing," he said. "These wines are great for the more knowledgeable consumer looking for good value."

Albarino makes up 90 percent of all wine grape plantings in the region. Other important white grapes include treixadura, loureira and caino blanco.

As is common in Europe, wines made in Rias Baixas are named for the region, not the grape. Still, any Rias Baixas wine made solely out of albarino grapes may also be labeled "albarino."

Blends, which usually feature at least 70 percent albarino, are named for one of five geographical districts within the Rias Baixas appellation. Those districts are Condado de Tea, O Rosal, Ribeira del Ulla, Soutomaior and Val do Salnes.

Rodriguez believes Rias Baixas is the "flagship" of Spanish white wines and is gaining in recognition around the world. But that doesn't mean he thinks winemakers there can rest easy.

"We must improve our efforts to highlight the singularities and authenticity of our wines and region," he wrote.

Spicy Thai crab and corn fritters

Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 4 minutes per batch
Servings: 6 appetizers

Albarino wine works particularly well with grilled or spicy seafood dishes. Fitting the bill perfectly is this recipe from Edwina Gadsby of Great Falls, Mont., the grand prize winner in the recent Rias Baixas albarino recipe contest sponsored by Wines From Spain. Serve with a spicy Southeast Asian dipping sauce.

Ingredients:
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
1 piece (1 1/2 inches long) ginger root, grated
1 can (6 ounces) lump crabmeat, drained, flaked, picked over for cartilage
1 1/2 cups frozen (thawed) or canned sweet corn kernels
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
3 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro or Thai basil
1/2 cup flour
3 1/2 cups oil for frying

1. Combine eggs, fish sauce, chili garlic sauce and ginger in a medium bowl. Stir in crab, corn, green onions and cilantro. Add flour; stir until ingredients are combined.

2. Heat 1/2 inch oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Carefully spoon crab mixture by rounded tablespoonfuls in batches into hot oil, flattening slightly with spoon. Cook fritters until golden brown and crisp, about 2 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining batter.

Nutrition information
Per serving: 159 calories, 31 percent of calories from fat, 6 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 131 mg cholesterol, 17 g carbohydrates, 11 g protein, 384 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

By the numbers:

12: Grape varieties permitted to be grown in Rias Baixas
198: Number of wineries in the region
1 million: Number of liters of wine from Rias Baixas exported in 2006 to the United States

Source: Wines from Spain

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