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Albarino: Spain’s flagship white grape makes wines like bottled sunshine

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The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals

For the best taste of bottled Spanish sunshine, you'll have to travel – at least figuratively – to one of the cloudiest places in the country, Galicia. It's there, in the drizzly northwest near the Atlantic coast, that albarino rises to its greatest heights. Spain's flagship white grape is about as refreshing as wine can be, the sort of beverage that can seem oddly incongruous with one of the few places in Spain where you need an umbrella to stay dry rather than beat the heat.

Yet it's precisely that relatively cool, overcast weather that helps preserve albarino's vigorous acidity, ensuring it doesn't get so overripe and lazy as to need an afternoon siesta. The finest albarino wines perform a rare dance, combining substantial body with an almost gravity-defiant lift. Notes of flowers, lemongrass, Earl Grey tea and even a suggestion of the nearby salty ocean add subtle complexity to the citrus- and peach-like fruitiness. They're brilliant with simple shellfish dishes, including raw oysters and grilled shrimp and sublime on their own in the sunny outdoors.

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Global recognition did not come easily for albarino. It is, after all, a white grape from a country that most wine consumers tend to associate mainly with the colour red. We can probably thank the much-ballyhooed rise of haute Spanish cuisine, as well as the missionary zeal of sommeliers at trendy tapas restaurants the world over, for albarino's newfound popularity.

There had been the obstacle of terminology, too. The grape is often considered synonymous with Rias Baixas, an appellation that stretches south and west of the iconic Santiago de Compostela cathedral, the finish line of the famed Christian pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. Back in 1980, when locals came up with the idea of legally distinguishing their wines to protect against competition from albarino-producing upstart regions, they sought to monopolize the name albarino for their sole use. Nice try, but by 1986, when Spain joined the European Union, the appellation lobbyists were forced to rethink their plan because the EU declined to grant protected geographical status to a generic grape name. So, they settled on "Rias Baixas," named for a series of inlets on the coast. The wines are still made mainly from albarino, but it doesn't take a linguist to know that "al-bah-REE-nyo" is less intimidating to non-Spanish speakers than Rias Baixas ("REE-ahs-BUY-shuss").

In good news for albarino lovers, laws still permit producers to list the grape on the label along with the appellation. Rias Baixas brands worth a detour include Castro Martin, Fillaboa and Raul Perez, though it's hard to come across a genuine dud.

Spaniards may claim it as their own, but albarino legitimately carries two passports. The vine originated somewhere near the border with Portugal, that much we know for certain. But its true nationality remains a question mark (unless you happen to be either Spanish or Portuguese, in which case the convictions on either side are as strong as those about which country is better at soccer). Across the border it's known as alvarinho, though in Portugal it is typically found in blends with other grapes rather than as a varietal wine, as in the captivating and wonderfully delicate, low-alcohol white that happens to be much more famous than Rias Baixas, vinho verde.

And albarino has travelled far on its dual passport, planting stakes in such far-flung places as Australia, New Zealand, California and Uruguay, where producers are capitalizing on the culinary craze for all things Spanish (or Portuguese).

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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