To state the obvious, the Basque Country is a complicated part of Spain. Since 1978 it has been deemed by the government an autonomous community within Spain’s national border. This stems mainly because the Euskadi don’t see themselves as Spaniards and feel instead that they are a distinct nationality. Much like the Catalans in the northeast part of Spain, the Basque’s speak their own dialect (Euskera) and have stronger ties to their French cousins across the border (also who identify themselves as Basque). They feel their heritage is so distinct that they have created their own political party, local government, and have aggressively petitioned to sever all political, economic, & cultural ties with Spain. The intense belief that they should lie apart from the rest of the country has in the last 40 years has been at the heart of quite a bit of controversy.
[País Vasco: The central northern coastal region (in red) kissing France]
This controversy is mainly due to the actions of the nationalist & separatist movement, ETA, Eusakadi Ta Askatasuna (meaning “Basque Homeland & Freedom”). ETA has dominated the headlines in the Spanish & world news for its terrorist attacks since 1968 and is responsible for over 800 deaths. Luckily, there has been a ceasefire in effect since 2010 and we can take the time to understand the region outside of the shadow that has been cast by such tragedy.
Today, three years after the latest ceasefire, one wouldn’t notice any physical signs of conflict nor major political fervor amongst the people. Were it not for the oft seen separatist slogans spray-painted on the roadside or banners hanging on bridges over the highways you might not think about it at all. In the cities people are averagely polite and cosmopolitan while in the countryside people are quiet and kind. They are vigorously Basque and proud of their nationality, but political activism has taken a more subdued tone in recent years.
[Pintxos: pronounced PEEN-choes]
It’s hard to segue from tragedy to gastronomy, but perhaps it’s important not to dilute this stark contrast that is at the heart of the region’s character. Food and drink is as much a source of pride in the culture as their fiercely independent nature. Most well known internationally are Pintxos - local bar snacks many of which are pierced with toothpicks in order to make them easier to handle. They sit atop the counter and allow customers to order by simply pointing. Once consumed the cost of your meal is calculated by the number of toothpicks that remain. On the high end, there is also a very high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants in the region; 36 restaurants in total, and 4 of them with the highest rating of three stars. This is sure to be due to the proximity to France and the close relationship it allows them. But it is also due to the access of diverse food sources and a crossing of cultures afforded by a cosmopolitan port city.
[Image from here]
In the restaurants of distinction wine is an important aspect of the meal, but contrastingly, local wine is mostly a simple thing in the region. There is much more serious wine coming from the northernmost part of Rioja, the sub-region of Rioja Alavesa, that in part resides within the boundaries of the Basque Country. Otherwise, most of the wine in the region comes from areas closer to the coast in a region called Txakolina (pronounced cha-ko-LEE-nah). Because of the climate and the humble origins of winemaking in the area, this wine is a simple, lightly frizzante white known as Txakoli - also spelled Chacolí (cha-ko-LEE). The region is made up of 3 sub-regions - Getaría Txakolina, Bizkaiko Txakolina, & Arabako Txakolina - all of which are located within minutes of the sea. Getaría, the eldest of the three regions, was only recently established as a Denominacíon de Origen in 1989. Bizkaiko followed in 1994 and Arabako in 2001.
[Let’s just say the landscape isn’t ugly]
Txakolina is geographically situated on the Bay of Biscay where Spain meets France on the Atlantic side. The Pyrenees mountain range, that acts as a natural barrier between Spain and France, melts away as it approaches the coast from the east. What remains is a beautifully green, hilly, and rocky landscape that dramatically meets the sea. Though grapes have been grown and wine has been made here for generations, this is a very young region for winemaking in a unified manner. The grape varieties specific to the region are called - though they are pronounced phonetically they are Basque tongue twisters: Hondurrabi Zuri (white grape variety) and Hondurrabi Beltza (red grape variety). Also grown are grapes of French origin: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Folle Blanche, and even Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, & Petit Corbu.
Soil types are almost entirely clay or loamy clay, though there are more stony soils in Arabako. On less ventilated vineyards the vines are trained high off the ground (5-6 feet) on pergolas so the moist sea air doesn’t dwell too long potentially causing the onset of rot. Vineyards with better airflow may be planted lower to the ground on wire-trained trellising systems.
[Vines are high off the ground trained to wires called the Pergola system]
This sea influence is evident in every bottle of Txakoli. The wine is simple. It is light and refreshing like lemonade in the summer; flavors are mostly sea-salty, mineral, & tart with fruit flavors of bitter citrus & green apple; it’s low in alcohol (usually around 11.5%); and the wine is lightly fizzy as most producers intentionally bottle the wine with a bit of carbonation which gives the drinker the sensation of a light prickle on the tongue. A style of wine similar to the perhaps more familiar northern Portuguese white wine, Vinho Verde. It is a summer beverage meant to be consumed without thought and ideally with seafood and fried, greasy bar snacks (a la Pintxos).
[Notice the glass…NOT a wine glass] [Image from here]
Most dramatically the wine is often poured from a height a few feet above the glass in a thin stream. This is so that as it falls and hits the glass the wine splatters and releases the wine’s gas causing a vigorous, frothy fizz to temporarily form. This pouring tradition brings both a theatrical element as well as a textural one. Both of which are cause for the “oohs” and “ahhs” of wine drinkers unaccustomed to seeing wine treated with such disregard.
I’ve personally poured this wine for almost a decade and in my opinion it is a tasty, easy-drinking wine that should be consumed inexpensively and commonly while thought of something along the lines of adult lemonade. Do not try and wrap your mind around the complexities of the universe as you drink this. Do not ponder the meaning of life as it fizzes in your glass. Instead, think of your friends and the wonderfully comedic & silly things you’ve done or seen in life. Such as…
…tripping, falling, and then laughing it off.
…hitting your head on a low ceiling.
…embarrassing moments on first dates.
…watching Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
[In my mind, the wine tastes something like this…you get the picture]
[Image from here]