In his fifth and final article guest columnist Quentin Sadler talks about Txakoli from Spain’s Atlantic coast. For publication in the week starting 1 October 2018.
The sheer variety of what Spain produces is astonishing. The country is most famous for reds, especially from Rioja, but this fascinating country has so much more to offer.
The smooth, fruity red wines from the Monastrell grape in Jumilla, Yecla and Alicante are completely different from the reds of Rioja. So are the rich, spicy Garnacha (Grenache) reds from Calatayud, Cariñena, Campo de Borja and Terra Alta, the powerful earthy red blends from Montsant and Priorat in Cataluña and the lighter, fragrant red wines made from Mencia grapes in Bierzo and Valdeorras.
Spain is just as good for white wines too. Galicia’s Rías Baixas region and its star grape Albariño are pretty well known, but there is so much more to Spanish whites. All the other Galician wine areas for a start, like Ribeira Sacra and Ribeiro. Castilla y León gets a look in too with the wonderful crisp dry whites of the Rueda region. The key grape here is the indigenous Verdejo which has something of the tang of Sauvignon Blanc.
One of the most intriguing Spanish white wines is Txakoli (pronounced Chacko-lee). This is a Basque name because the wine hails from that cold, wet, windswept region that hugs Spain’s Atlantic coast and the Bay of Biscay. In the rest of Spain, as well as on export markets, the wine is often called Chakolí. It has become trendy in a handful of places in recent years and represents one of Spain’s most exciting regions.
Txakoli are mainly light-bodied white wines – it is really too cold to ripen black grapes here – that have a lot of flavour and often something cider-like about them. There is often a slight spritz too that makes them very refreshing.
The origins of the Txakoli name seem to be lost in the mists of time, but it does not refer to the region or the grape varieties from which the wines are produced. Txakoli is made from the white Hondarrabi Zuri or the black Hondarrabi Beltza grapes. These are not grown anywhere else in the world and very little seems to be known about them.
Txakoli has three regions, what the Spanish call Denominación de Origen (DO for short) which is a protected wine region just like the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).
The most widely encountered Txakolis come from DO Getariako Txakolina / DO Chacolí de Getaria (Castilian). This beautiful area covers just 327 hectares (810 acres) of wild headland on the coast around the lovely fishing harbour of Getaria, to the west of San Sebastián.
Getariako Txakolina can only be made from Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grapes. Only 18 producers make about 1.5 million litres of wine, but these include the two most famous producers of Txakoli on export markets – Txomin Etxaniz (pronounced Chomin Et-chanith ) and Ameztoi (pronounced Ametzoy).
At their best these wines can be as refreshing and bracing as a walk along a windy seashore. They are light-bodied, have high acidity and tend to be light in alcohol, at about 10.5 to 11 per cent, with green apple characters and even a trace of a salty tang and a slight spritz that makes them wonderful as an aperitif or with a salad, seafood and virtually any alfresco meal.
The Bizkaiko Txakolina / Chacolí de Bizcaia (Castilian) DO surrounds the city of Bilbao and is not so widely available. These wines tend to be a little richer and higher in alcohol at around 12.5 per cent. This makes them a bit rounder than those from Getaria. My notes keep referring back to citrus fruit rather than the green apple in the Getaria wines. They also often have less obvious sparkle.
One of the very best producers here is Itasas Mendi. All their wines are good, but my favourite is the Itasas Mendi 7 made from a blend of grapes that includes a little Riesling.
The Arabako Txakolina / Chacolí de Álava (Castilian) DO is rarely seen because it covers a mere 50 hectares (125 acres). It only has five producers who make about 200,000 litres of wine a year.
They still use Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grapes but blend them with Petit Manseng, Petit Corbu and Gross Manseng. These are all more famously used in the French part of the Basque lands, while Petit Manseng makes the great sweet wines of Jurançon.
These wines can successfully marry the freshness of Getari with the extra weight of Bizcaia. They still have high acidity, but it is less overwhelming, while the flavours tend towards the citrus and the mineral with some grapes introducing a floral character.
These three regions added together can only boast 90 producers who between them turn out about 3 million litres of Txakoli a year – barely more than a litre for every Basque.
The best way to experience Txakoli is in the pintxo bars of San Sebastián. These bars with their counters groaning under the weight of all the pintxos are usually packed with happy people and dominate the narrow streets of this lovely old town.
Just going from one bar to the other experiencing each place’s speciality pintxo and a glass of Txakoli makes for a wonderful night out. Pintxos has become the word for tapas here as the food usually has a tooth pick — pintxo — through them to stop it falling apart. Pintxos should not be confused with pinchos, which is a kebab often served as a tapas dish further south.
Your barman will pour the Txakoli from a great hight, often using an aerating device, into a wide, shallow tumbler. This exaggerates the spritz in the wine and is all part of the vibrant theatre of the pintxo bars.
Txakoli is also very good with shellfish and fish dishes, but works with all sorts of lighter foods like sushi and spicy cuisines including Szechuan, Malay and Korean.
Quentin Sadler is a wine communicator who has spent more than 30 years in the UK wine trade and has done it all from retail, buying and selling through to marketing. Nowadays he trains members of the trade as well as interested consumers in both WSET qualifications and bespoke courses. He is a popular speaker for wine clubs as well as giving presentations to the trade and hosting wine events and entertainments. Quentin also writes about wine and is a cartographer, creating maps used to illustrate wine books and educational presentations, as well as these articles. His web site can be found here.