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That Grape from Galicia

Thick-skinned, salty and a little bitter, local Albariño makes good

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The way the story usually goes, some Bordeaux-besotted character vows to make wines that "rival the best of France." Who dreams of besting the wines of Rías Baixas, Spain? Hoping to score two or three local specimens of Albariño, an aromatic, "alternative" white varietal made from a thick-skinned grape native to northwestern Spain, and grown on just 21 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties, I was surprised to find more than a few. With International Albariño Day on Aug. 2, I set off on a little winetasting fiesta.

Peter Franus 2013 Napa Valley Albariño ($26) This wine hits all the right notes. Cool, gentle aromas of applesauce, guava, pear and melon rind precede a surprisingly rich, Roussanne-like palate, with a characteristic salty sensation—often said, particularly of Spanish Albariño, to evoke the damp, Galician coast. The grapes are from a ranch south of Napa that's also home to the "Oreo cows" familiar to highway motorists.

Gordian Knot 2012 Russian River Valley Albariño ($23) After touring Spain, Anne Giere and Tim Meinken replanted one acre of their estate to Albariño. Here's a floral aroma, yellow roses and lemon skin, with tangy flavors of lemon and unripe pear, yet persistent on the palate. Try this instead of Pinot Grigio.

Saddleback 2012 Carneros Albariño ($24) Completely different, and distinctly toasty-oaky, with lemon, pear and lavender. But the bitter melon palate is nothing like the expected butterball. Pineapple and mango come in later, bringing it all together.

Imagery Estate 2013 Sonoma Valley Albariño ($29) More like a Sauvignon Blanc, with green, "cat pee" and jasmine aromas, bitter melon, bits of pear and peach; crisp and dry.

Marimar Estate 2013 Russian River Valley Albariño ($32) Marimar Torres grows a little Albariño alongside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The most delicately floral of the bunch, with lime blossom, this feels like Pinot Blanc—pear and melon and a hint of that salty persistence.

Artesa 2013 Carneros Albariño ($28) Apropos offering from this Spanish-owned winery. Here the fragrance is more of ripe, brown-speckled golden apples, less of melon. Crisp palate with just enough of that salty weight to drink nicely with shiitake-ginger-soy marinated steak salad.

Mahoney 2011 Las Brisas Vineyard Carneros Albariño ($20) From one of the most notable alternative varietal experiments in Carneros. The smoky, oaky nose suggests barrel fermentation, with sweet caramel, pineapple and mango, but flavors of salted kiwi marinated in the juice of underripe pears. Sneak this into a paper bag tasting and watch your friends' confident "Ah, Cali Chardonnay" pronouncements disintegrate into confusion over this deliciously different, Galician anomaly.

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