Basque Wine Country: The Txakoli of the New

GETARIA, Spain.—“Go on being uncommercial,” great American songwriter Jerome Kern advised a colleague. “There’s a lot of money in it.” It’s doubtful that the handful of wine producers along the jagged coast of Spain’s Basque Country, tucked into the far northeast corner of Spain near the French border, are familiar with Kern’s counsel. But they have profited by it all the same.

Talk about uncommercial. First, you’ve got the language. In the small fishing (and high-end eating) town of Getaria, about 15 miles west of San Sebastián, you’re more likely to hear the native Basque language than Spanish, at least if you’re privileged to hang with the locals.

“I spoke only Basque until I was nine years old,” says the 30-something Mikel Txueka, whose family owns one of the largest, and best, wineries in the zone, called Txomin Etxaniz. Basque, famously, is unrelated to any other European language. For outsiders, which means everybody except the Basques themselves, it may as well be Klingon, so impenetrable is it.

Nevertheless, every label of every wine produced in this zone is proudly Basque. Which means the rest of us—and that, oddly enough, means Americans in particular, as the U.S. is the leading export market for these wines—must pick up a little Basque in order to, well, even order the wine.

So, here goes: There’s no “ch” in Basque. Instead it’s spelled “tx.” Txomin comes out sounding like “cho-meen.” If David Bowie had been, say, half-Basque, the song would have read “Tx-tx-tx-txanges.”

That uncommercial enough for you? There’s more. The dry white wine of the zone is called Txakoli. Except when it’s also called Txakolina. What’s the difference? None. A Txakoli is also a Txakolina. Take your pick.

And then there are the grape varieties. No roll-off-the-tongue Chardonnay for these producers. The most widely planted grape variety, by far, is the utterly local Hondarrabi Zuri (“zuri” meaning white), with a very small amount of the red variety called Hondarrabi Beltza.

Finally, once you’ve got all that on your tongue, you’ve got the individual district names, all resoundingly Basque: the district around the town of Getaria is called Getariako Txakolina, which was the first to get a legal appellation, in 1989, and whose designation was spearheaded by the Txueka family of the Txomin Etxaniz winery; the larger, more embracing appellation of Biscay is called Biskaiko Txakolina, created in 1994; and, finally, the newest and smallest zone, formed in 2001, is called Álava or Arabako Txakolina. Its relatively few vineyards are not along the coast, as with the wines from Getaria, but inland.

Language class dismissed. Now for the wines. They are original. Light. Elegant. Palate cleansing. Slightly effervescent. Refreshingly acidic. Low in alcohol at around 11 percent. And clearly destined for the exquisitely fresh fish of Basque cuisine, except that the locals also drink Txakoli with red meat. Why? Because historically it was all that they had. (Nowadays red Rioja is increasingly the preferred accompaniment to their tasty, locally raised steaks, “or txuletas,” which are served as rare as you’ve ever seen a steak cooked, liberally sprinkled with crunchy morsels of salt.)

Txakoli, you see, literally means “farm wine” or “homemade wine.” Mostly grown on the dramatically sited hillsides overlooking the Cantabrian Sea, which is the part of the Atlantic Ocean that washes against the northern coast of Spain, Txakoli is neither easy to grow nor easy to ripen.

The reason? It’s a chilly place to grow grapes, what with the cold winds blowing in from the sea. (Nearly all the vineyards have stunning ocean views.) And it’s more than a little moist. Rain falls year-round in coastal Basque Country. The ocean effect again.

“This is why we train our vines so high off the ground,” explains Mikel Txueka as we walk one of his family’s hillside vineyards, not even having to duck under the wires that support the overhead canes, so high off the ground are they. “They’re trained high in what we call the parra system, what others might call a pergola. There’s a lot of moisture on the ground, so the high training deals with that. Even so, we have to spray a lot, because of a constant threat of mildew and mold because of the rain. Not a week goes by in the summer when it doesn’t rain at least once in a week.”

And that, in turn, helps explain one eye-opening fact: “Thirty-five years ago there were only 14 hectares [35 acres] of vines in all of Gipuzkoa,” says Mr. Txueka. (Gipuzkoa is the name of the entire province, the smallest in Spain.)

Jerome Kern’s advice was not foolproof. The lightly effervescent white wine called Txakoli was, in the 1980s, heading for near-extinction. What saved it? Most observers point to the ambition and world-recognition of the many now-famous Basque restaurants so liberally sprinkled with Michelin stars. That, coupled with the fierce local pride in all things Basque, revived Txakoli. The great chefs proudly served Txakoli; the tourists clamored for it. Jerome Kern was right after all.

“Today we have 33 wineries and about 400 hectares [988 acres] of vineyards creating Txakoli,” reports Mr. Txueka. “Our family winery, Txomin Etxaniz—it’s the name of the uncle of my grandfather; Txomin is Basque for what in Spanish would be Domingo—is the largest in Getaria. We have 18 people working here, 13 of which are family.”

Txomin Etxaniz is no rustic operation. The modern winery is all gleaming stainless steel, spotlessly clean, with only a few barrels of acacia wood for a small, essentially experimental version of barrel-aged Txakoli called TX. (The first vintage, 2016, offered a pleasing metallic scent, with a rounder texture than the conventional, all-stainless-steel Txakoli thanks to six months in the acacia wood barrels.)

Txakoli is abundantly served in the hundreds of pintxos (tapas) bars in nearby San Sebastián, theatrically poured into flat-bottomed glasses from high-higher-highest heights, to amplify the light, natural effervescence of this dry, delicate white wine.

“Actually, sometimes it gets poured from too high a height,” says Mr. Txueka. “If it’s poured from too high you actually lose the effervescence. The proper pouring height is no more than 20 centimeters [about eight inches] above the glass.”

But txakoli is no longer an exclusively local item. Txomin Etxaniz exports about 15 percent of its 300,000 bottle production to 26 different countries. “My grandfather would have been astounded,” laughs Mr. Txueka. “He would have said, ‘Don’t they have their own wine?’” Most of the production—65 percent—remains in Basque Country; the balance, goes elsewhere in Spain.

The United States is the largest export market for Txakoli, largely thanks to the enthusiasm of numerous sommeliers who have embraced the wine for its low-alcohol, refreshing delicacy and, likely, for the almost alien, esoteric element of the wine, the grape variety and the label language. Txakoli is nothing if not “authentic,” which perceived attribute is much-prized in certain wine circles.

And then there’s the utterly “inauthentic” Txakoli rosé. “We make 35,000 bottles of rosé,” reports Mr. Txueka. “Ten years ago, there was no such thing as rosé Txakoli. It didn’t exist. It was unheard of. The first winery to make it was our neighbor, Ameztoi; we were the second.”

A 50/50 blend of the white Hondarrabi Zuri and the red Hondarrabi Beltza, the rosé produced by Txomin Etxaniz is a pale, exquisite shade of pink and proffers a distinctive strawberry scent and savor. Dry in taste, it actually has four to five grams of residual sugar, which is essential to take the edge off the intrinsically high acidity of all Txakoli wines.

Mr. Txueka is noticeably unenthusiastic about his own very fine (and lucrative) rosé. “Really, we do it for the American market. We sell 75 percent of all of our rosé to America. They really like it.” (This American does too; it’s a lovely rosé.)

However “inauthentic” the local rosé may be, there’s no question that it—and the modernity it represents—is here to stay in this almost ferociously tribal place so openly proud and protective of its ancient traditions and unique language.

Yet modernity marches on. “The Spanish hate screwcaps,” offers Mr. Txueka. “But I think that in two years we’re going to use them anyway.” One can only wonder what the Basque word for screwcap might be. We’ll surely soon find out.

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