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The changing face of Txakoli

Hot-foot from a trip to Basque Spain at the end of October, I postponed the idea of a blog enthusing about Txakoli (aka Chacolí) on the grounds that only masochists would be looking for bracingly sharp, ultra-light white wines in those cold, dark, wintry days...

Txakoli Álava

Txakoli Álava, the highest, driest, smallest and newest of the three Txakoli regions

So why am I revisiting the idea in the, er, cold, dark, wintry days of January? I’m so glad you asked: I have some pretty good reasons. First, you might actually be looking for less alcoholic, lower calorie wines as you loosen your belt another notch after all the festive feasting (Txakoli is traditionally 9–11% alcohol). Secondly, it is seasonal: January 17th is Txakolin Eguna – Txakoli day – when 17 wineries around San Sebastián offer their wine of the latest harvest to the public to taste. I appreciate that it’s short notice but, if you are tempted, it’s easy enough to get a flight to Bilbao, and San Sebastián is a great foodie destination (oh, sorry, I forgot about the belt notches but, as I said, Txakoli is lower in calories than most wines, even with some acid-offsetting residual sugar). If you can’t make it, raise a glass, persuade your local tapas bar to call their tapas pintxos for the day instead, and plan a trip for later in the year (perhaps to coincide with the Txakoli day towards the end of May in the Txakoli Álava region).

Number three: it’s a new year, so make a resolution to try some different wines in 2018. Even if you’re already a Txakoli aficionado, you can’t know all and everything – not in a region where innovation and experimentation are such a feature (more of that in a moment). Number four: Txakoli is traditionally poured into the glass from an inordinate height, the idea being that the wine loses some of its carbon dioxide effervescence on the way down. It may look faintly preposterous, but that’s no reason not to learn a new party trick and it might count as part of your new year’s exercise regime. (I admit that reason number four is looking a bit weak.)

Did someone mention innovation? Txakoli’s wineries, or at least enough of them to have an impact, are in a flurry of boundary-pushing experimentation. If you didn’t know, you’re not the only one. I did my research before I visited the region at the end of October (tying myself in knots over the grape varieties, which the trip didn’t entirely untie – a work in progress), but, even so, I wasn’t prepared for the pace and the creativity.

I sailed into the first winery, the stunningly situated Bodegas Astobiza, a ten-hectare estate 300m above sea level in the mountainous Txakoli Álava (the smallest, highest and newest of the three appellations) and came face to face with fashionable egg-shaped concrete fermentation vats. And new French oak barrels from Seguin Moreau. And a wine called Malkoa that had been aged on its lees for six to seven months (developing floral, honeyed, peppery depths). And a late-harvest sweet wine with apricot intensity, made entirely from Izkiriota, also known as Izkiriota Haundia (I’m using the spelling I was given at the winery), but better known outside Basque Spain as Gros Manseng, a variety of south west France, which is, of course, just over the border.

Bodegas Astobiza, Txakoli

Concrete eggs, fermenting wine, new barrels and modern labelling at Bodegas Astobiza, Txakoli Álava

And so it went on, at each winery I visited in the three regions: Txakoli Guetaria, the largest (and wettest), supplier to nearby San Sebastián of masses of traditional, sharp, lightly fizzy, green-apple flavoured, salty fresh wine; Txakoli Vizcaya on the coast to the west; and the baby of the trio, Txakoli Álava, inland, drier, higher and DO only since 2001.

Piquillo peppers drying in the late October sun and pintxos (tapas), including delicious local anchovies del Cantábrico, at Itsasmendi, Txacoli Vizcaya

At Bodegas Itsasmendi, in Txakoli Vizcaya, the line-up included an orange wine, or, more precisely, a low sulphur, carbonic maceration wine named Batberri; four vintages of Txakoli’s original extended lees-contact wine, called 7, which includes 15–20% Riesling (to good effect); Eklipse, a barrel-matured red Txakoli (65% Pinot Noir, 35% of the local red Hondarrabi Beltza) that should be served cool, but not heavily chilled, and would go well with fish; and Uretzi, a late-harvest wine that is sometimes botrytis-affected, as was the 2014 I tasted. Outside, as I surveyed the vineyards Itsasmendi has in biodynamic conversion, a sea eagle was surveying them (or us) overhead.

Itsasmendi, Txakoli Vizcaya

Itsasmendi's low sulphur, carbonic maceration wine (top right), vineyards in biodynamic conversion (bottom right), 7, Txakoli's first extended lees-aged wine, and the red, Eklipse among other Itsasmendi wines

At Gaintza, less than one kilometre from the sea in Txakoli Guetaria and only about 35m above sea level, the Lazkano family showed textbook traditional Txakoli (light and racy with salty, tart grapefruit and green apple flavours) and a riper, more concentrated, quince flavoured wine made from their centenarian Hondarribi Zuri vines (the main variety of the region) with about 10% Chardonnay (no groans, please; it works) and 5% of the red Hondarribi Beltza.

Gaintza, Txakoli Guetaria

Olives and lemons around the winery at Gainza, the view towards the sea, less than 1km away, and Aitako, made from centenarian vines

At Txakoli’s largest producer, the family owned and run Txomín Etxaníz in Txakoli Guetaria, they make a lot of traditional Txakoli for the local market, but also produce persuasive traditional-method sparkling white and rosé, under the Eugenia label, from Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza, and a barrel-matured wine called TX, for which new French acacia barrels were used for the first time in 2016. The Etxaníz family was first documented in the wine business in 1649 in the town of Getaria (the town’s name is without the ‘u’). No doubt the 13 members of the Txueka Etxaníz family currently working in the business rightly feel they have enough experience to try a few different things and, with a sea view to die for and vines dating back to the nineteenth century (pre-phylloxera), absolutely no reason to move elsewhere.

Txomín Etxaníz, Txakoli Guetaria

Mikel Txueka, one of 13 family members, out of 18 people, working at Txomin Etxaniz, where the portfolio includes traditional-method sparkling white and rosado and a wine aged in acacia barrels

Txakoli is self-evidently a region forging ahead and is to be applauded for that, but it’s emphatically not one throwing the baby out with the bath water. That’s exactly as it should be. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that innovative, mould-breaking wines are innately superior. I resist the word unique, but traditional Txakoli is certainly a very distinctive, individualistic style of wine and one with a history, traditions and regional character that producers and local markets value. We must too.

As far as buying Txacoli (or Chacolí) in the UK is concerned, availability is patchy, especially at this time of year, so I suggest you try it wherever you see it in bars, restaurants and shops and search online using Google and The UK importers are: Alliance Wine for Itsasmendi; Liberty Wines for Gaintza; and Gonzalez Byass UK for Txomin Etxaniz.

If any importers are looking for a Txacoli, I recommend Bodegas Astobiza and also, although I didn’t visit and only tasted two wines (Eukeni and Xarmant below, both impressive), Artomaña Txakolina in Txakoli Álava.

PS: I haven’t gone into spelling and alternative spelling – there’s a dissertation in it – but Txakoli is Basque, as are Txakolin and Txakolina. Chacolí is the Castillian spelling. Whichever you use, remember to switch off predictive text – and when in doubt add an 'x'.

Photographs by Joanna Simon

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