Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Upon entering the countryside of what most Spaniards know as pais vasco, or basque country, and what Basques refer to as Euskadi, you cannot help but feel as though time and the rugged, mountainous geography have left this region completely isolated. Yes, mostly everything that you hear about this most peculiar of Spanish regions is true. The language is bizarre, not at all related to Spanish, any other Romance language or representative of any other family of languages for that matter. The lush, green hilly terrain suggests Ireland more than Iberia. Many signs, storefronts, even trucking companies are named with the same unusual, curved, basque font, which would seem to be heavily influenced by summer of love era, psychedelia inspired graphic design. Yes, the Basques apparently even have their own font.
As far as wine is concerned, in a country best known for its robust red wines from grapes such as Tempranillo and Garnacha, a low alcohol, slightly fizzy, crisp thirst quenching white is both the main wine produced and most popular wine to drink with the abundance of terrific, fresh local seafood. Using beautiful old town San Sebastian as a base, Natalie and I recently ventured into the region of Txacoli Getariako, centered in the hills above the port town of Zarautz. In the camping area around Mt. Talai Mendi lies Talai-Berri, run by Bixente Eizaguirre , whose 12 hectares of vineyards lie on low to medium grade hills, verdantly green from the cover crops and a healthy, not overly pruned canopy. For the soil nerds, the vines grow in arenisca, a soft, crumbly yellowish sandstone. Most of the vines are Hondarribi Zuri, and a tiny amount of land is dedicated to the far more rare Hondarribi Beltza. With a flavor profile similar to Loire valley cabernet franc, hondarribi beltza is used to make red txacoli in vintages that are warm enough to properly ripen these grapes.
Heading into the winemaking facility from the vineyards, I noticed the immaculate conditions of the winery, the stainless steal gleaming while Bixente explained the elaboration of his wines. One of the keys to txakoli production is the retention of CO2 in the finished wine, achieved by simply sealing off the fermentation vats in the final stages of fermentation (normally they would be left open for white wine production). This traps a bit of CO2 and provides the sparkle. Following a cold stabilization, the txakoli is kept in vats at a near freezing temperature and bottled as needed. After the quick walk through of his winemaking facility, I tasted the 2007 Talai Berri Txakoli. Produced from 90% Hondarribi Zuri and 10% Hondarribi Beltza, its flavor profile is classic txacoli: crisp, fresh, lively acidity, and a light sparkle. Perhaps it was a touch more full-bodied and rounded, with a pretty white peach note prominent in the mid-palate. Definitely worth noting is that Talai Berri's modest 8,000 case production makes them one of the larger producers of txacoli in the region, indicative of the fact that the production zone for txakoli is Spain's smallest D.O.
After the Talai Berri visit, Natalie and I descended the hill in our car to the village of Getaria, where we had a delicious lunch of fresh fish (turbo for her and hake for me). Hake, or merluza a la vasca (grilled with the perfect proportion of olive oil, garlic and parsley) is one of my favorite Spanish seafood dishes. Paired with a bottle of 2007 Ameztoi Txakoli, while sitting within view of the Bay of Zarautz, it was the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Basque country, surrounded by water, green hillsides and tourists, from as far away as Australia and as nearby as Madrid. And surrounded, of course, by bottles of txakoli at every table.