I saw at a window table at Asador Cannon, a hilltop restaurant overlooking the Bay of Biscay in Basque Country, the autonomous region in the northeastern corner of Spain. Along with the sweeping view of the sea, I enjoyed that perfect trio of exceptional company, food, and drink. I chatted with my guide over a plate of grilled octopus and the seafood special of the day—fresh monkfish—as I sipped my way to the bottom of a bottle of a wine style I’d never heard of: txakoli.
Pronounced “CHOCK-oh-lee” (the Basque “tx” is like the “ch” in church), but also called txakolina, this dry white wine with high acidity and light effervescence is served cold and young—never more than a year old. The alcohol level ranges from 9–11.5 percent, making it light for a good summer drink.
But until the arrival of the new millennium, txakoli remained obscure outside of the Basque lands, and had been something perhaps only grandparents remembered making for the family: an unpretentious, homegrown drink that was never kept long enough to age.
A Basque Native
The grapes used to produce txakoli are native to Basque Country: hondarrabi zuri for the white, and hondarrabi beltza for the far less common red. (A rosé txakoli is gaining popularity as an export to the United States.)
The vineyards thrive in the hilly coastal environment, which brings more rainfall than any other wine region in Spain, and stabilizes temperatures to protect grapes from spring frosts and withering summer heat. Planting the vines along the southern and eastern faces of those hills additionally guards from cold winter winds.
That said, this wine is a survivor: The 19th-century phylloxera plague that devastated the French wine industry nearly took out hondarribi grapes as well.
While txakoli may be served in wine glasses at a nice restaurant, the bartenders at more casual bars, where you might order pintxos (the Basque version of tapas), often pour it into tumblers and make a show of it. In the same manner as they dispense regional cider, the servers hold the bottles from the bottom and tip it forward, sending a stream down from above—ideally, into your glass—to aerate it a bit and activate that mild carbonation.
A Rising Star
“The oldest document that we have about our family producing wine is from 1649. Since then, we have been dedicated to this,” said 30-something Mikel Txueka (pronounced “choo-ay-kah”) of the winery Txomin Etxaniz (“cho-meen ech-ah-neez”), situated in the fishing village Getaria, just west of San Sebastián. He grew up speaking Basque, and as a child worked his way around the winery, which began commercial production in 1930. Today, 13 of the 20 employees are family.
Txueka leads a “wine experience” that includes a tour of the winery and tastings. They have worked hard to increase production in the last few years, but now, he said, “we have to work to show people the value of this wine, to educate.” His family created the Getariako Txakolina Denomination of Origin in 1989 with other small wineries.
Today, txakoli enjoys three Denominations of Origin: Getariako Txakolina, in the region around San Sebastián; Bizkaiko Txakolina, Bilbao’s province, with around 36 wineries; and Txakoli de Álava, produced in the tiny province over the mountains to the south of Bilbao, stepping into Rioja territory, the only region of the three that doesn’t touch the sea.
“In the last 20 years, the number of people who know about txakoli has grown a lot,” Txueka said. In total, the wineries of Getaria produce 4 million bottles of DO Getariako Txakolina annually, with his family winery contributing more than half a million of those in six styles: the typical white, a rosé, two sparkling varieties, a sweet wine, and an acacia-aged white. “In recent years, the market has been calling for a light wine, and, as they say, knowledge is increasing.”
“The Basque area is world-famous for its food,” said Txueka. It’s true: Basque Country has nearly 40 Michelin-starred restaurants. “Of utmost importance here is the meal, and then also the wine that you are going to pair with it.”
Txakoli goes particularly well with seafood or a plate of pan-blistered padrón peppers (shishito peppers are of the same cultivar), but also pairs nicely with tapas—er, pintxos, such as the Gilda: an olive, an anchovy, and a couple of pickled guindilla peppers skewered on a toothpick.
Stateside you might find txakoli in Spanish restaurants and tapas bars, and some wine shops. Online ordering is always an option, but if you order from a vendor overseas, beware that the shipping cost is not for the casual sipper.
And the high pour? Txueka suggests you keep it no higher than eight inches, to avoid actually losing that effervescence you want to stir up.
Bottles to Try
Here are a few recommendations I’ve been able to find stateside, something to get you started in your quest for Basque wine:
As mentioned, Txomin Etxaniz has a long tradition and their txakoli is one of the most popular, with a refreshing lime-citrus acidity.
Artomaña “Xarmant” Txakolina is light and mildly effervescent, with a tangy fruit zest that pairs well with shellfish.
Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina pours a pale white, greenish hue, and touches the palate dry. It has a flavor profile that suggests green apples and perhaps a hint of mint.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com