Exploring the cool, crisp wine extremes of Portugal and Spain

A worker picks grapes at the Quinta do Vallado in Portugal. (Armando Franca/AP)

The first time I was offered a white port in Lisbon, Portugal, I thought the restaurant owner had lost his mind. However, the talented winemakers of Portugal do indeed make white ports.

They tend to be somewhat sweet and easy drinking, and make great aperitifs. They are also quite tasty with a spritz of tonic water and lemon.

While I had a handful of Portuguese vinho verdes and Spanish albarinos, this experience was the tip of the iceberg for me in terms of Iberian exploration. Both countries are home to extraordinary, food-friendly and lesser-known white wines that are also inexpensive.

The red wines are finally getting attention outside of Portugal, but I think it’s time to shine a spotlight on some of the whites. Many of the traditional producers of port in the northern region of Duoro are turning their focus to dry wines, some of them white.

Niepoort’s Twisted line features refreshing white wines that generally cost under $15 a bottle. The 2013 vintage, according to Winesearcher.com, is available at Solano Cellars in Berkeley for $14.50. This crisp wine with a playful label, designed by animator Bill Plympton, is made of difficult to pronounce native Portuguese grapes rabigato, códega do larinho, gouveio, dona branca, viosinho and bical, among others.

The far north of the country is also well known for its seafood-friendly whites made from local grapes such as trajadura and loureiro. The region is known for fruit-forward and sometimes charmingly fizzy vihno verdes, or “green wines,” which are named for their slightly green tint and youthful drinking style.

Many of Spain’s finest whites are found in the far north of the country, directly across the border from Portugal, in Rias Baixas in Galicia. These wines, primarily made from the ancient grape albarino, are lean, acidic and elegant. They often need some serious food to complete them, such as local seafood cooked in olive oil and infused with garlic.

A few other great regions for Spanish whites include Rueda in north-central Spain and Rioja in the Basque region. Rueda’s fresh whites, made primarily from verdejo grapes, are light and can be heavily mineral driven. They make great pre-dinner and appetizer wines: working well with everything from seafood to salads and the often difficult to pair green vegetables.

Rioja is better known for its reds, like much of Spain. The region also makes delicious whites, primarily from viura. For me, they often resemble the white Rhone wines of France, offering a broad spectrum of stone-fruit flavors and sometimes with a hint of oxidation. They are also good with a wide range of cheeses.

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