This is the second year that El Capitan and I have made a pilgrimage to Spain, in search of good food and wines. Last summer, Galician culture in Ribeira Sacra, drinking delicious mencia and godello crafted from impossibly terraced vineyards along the Bibei river. This time around donned our best berets to sample Basque culture along a breathtaking countryside surrounded by mountains and ocean vistas along the Cantabrian coastline. If not for the Spanish language, you would think you were in a different country altogether. But the Basque share a love for food, wine and adventure too, a very Spanish, if not global virtue.
Visiting the bodegas that produce txakoli requires skilled driving and expert map skills, and we persevered by making most of our appointments with only a slight fender bender. Anyone who has driven throughout Spain knows of its narrow streets and small jutting dividers, perilous for any driver. But the long drives and wrong turns from time to time was well worth it. If the view and winding turns are not enough incentives, then the thirst for txakoli during a hot and humid summer would serve as the reward for our efforts.
Txakoli is consumed mainly in the Basque country and is made up of hondarrabi zuri (white) and hondarrabi beltza (red). The mostly white wine is meant to be consumed young, and often exhibit a slightly carbonic quality specific only to txakoli. The wines are often tart, with racy acidity, and are quite a match for fresh seafood, although some Basque claim they drink txakoli with meat dishes as well.
Txomin and Ameztoi, in Getaria, are situated atop the mountains overlooking the beach, the water, and the French frontier. Winemaking looks incredibly challenging, except for Bulb, the Txomin dog, who enjoys fetching sticks thrown over the rail into the abyss of vines, only to return shortly with tail wagging, prize in mouth. The style of txakoli in Getaria is decidedly more carbonated, and enhanced so by tall pours from high above the glass, to encourage further bubbles. Young, tart, refreshing and delicious is the name of the game. Txakoli is meant to be consumed within two years, and some wineries bottle to order to preserve freshness and peak drinkability.
In Bizkaiko, the style of txakoli vary considerably, and are not crafted for the sake of bubbles. On the contrary, the aim is still to produce young tart wines, but with a bit more finesse, an attempt at a distinctive white wine without much carbonation. A good example can be found at vineyards such as Uriondo, which are located on more manageable hilltops, but have the benefit of being included in part of a natural ecosystem of other plants and animals.
Some projects are new, such as at Gurrutxaga, and are still honing a particular style. At Doniene Gorrondona, they are branching out with a tinto (red) wine which is delicious and spicy. Nextdoor neighbor to Txomin is Ameztoi, who produce the only rosado, and happens to be one of my favorites. The contrast of styles from Arabako to Getaria to Bizkaiko are intriguing, but the result is definitely txakoli, and Basque in spirit.
Our home base was Bilbao, where, after glimpsing the Guggenheim and the famous dog, makes one hungry. We sought out pintxos and txakolinas, as well as tippled aged Rioja which is on every wine list and reasonably priced. At Casa Rufo, we enjoyed a LDH Blanco 1991 for 21 euros! The real highlight meal was at Etxebarri, a renowned asador with masterful smoking techniques. Located in the ancient town of Axpe, the restaurant is faced by a soaring mountain. I am not a huge of fan of smoked foods because often the dishes are oversmoked, flavors of the ingredients lost in a sea of black char. But at Etxebarri, each dish is masterfully misted with smoke, like a soft cloud enhancing the natural juices.
Txakoli has become quite accessible in New York City and other parts of the U.S., and I believe it is a great addition to any wine list, not just for Spanish restos. At Pata Negra, I rotate producers every couple of months, as I feel txakoli can be consumed year round. After all, it matches quite well with jamon iberico.
Next stop on the journey, Barcelona, where tapas is on the mind. Please check out the feature on Txakoli in the NYTimes as well as the ensuing photo gallery for highlights.