Txakolina, a Simple Pleasure With a Deep Sense of Place

To understand the path of wine in the 21st century, consider a bottle of Txakolina.

Twenty years ago, Txakolina was virtually unknown outside Spanish Basque Country, where it was the go-to wine with just about anything consumed at a table. Even in the rest of Spain, it was hard to find.

Now, people all over the world have a passing familiarity with this often mildly effervescent wine, even if they don’t know how to pronounce it (chock-oh-LEE-nah).

Here at Wine School, where we have been exploring Txakolina over the last month, readers in Japan, Britain, Brazil, Italy, Switzerland and all over the United States weighed in with fond memories of a fizzy wine they once tasted in Basque Country and were delighted to be able to find closer to their homes.

This wine evolution, from local to global, has been repeated endlessly in the first part of this century. Whether grüner veltliner, assyrtiko, Jura or Etna, just to name a few examples beyond Txakolina, these wines have traveled a similar route to worldwide popularity.

By popularity, I don’t mean volume of sales. None of these wines will ever compete with brands that are produced by the millions of bottles each year. They are not mass-market. Nor will they ever achieve the status of a chardonnay or pinot noir, popular grapes that become generic synonyms for a glass of white or red.

Instead, wines like Txakolina are embraced by smaller groups of discriminating enthusiasts around the world, people who love wine and are curious enough to explore wines made from unfamiliar grapes or from little-known regions.

It doesn’t get much more unfamiliar than Getariako Txakolina, the Basque rendering of the appellation centered on the town of Getaria. The wine is sometimes called Txakoli, or written in Castilian as Chacolí.

What’s more, the principal grape for Getariako Txakolina, one of three Txakolina appellations, is hondarribi zuri, a white grape so mystifying that ampelographers cannot agree on its identity. “Wine Grapes,” the authoritative guide by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, asserts that hondarribi zuri can actually mean one of three different grapes: courbu blanc, crouchen or noah, an obscure hybrid.

Hondarribi beltza, the local red grape, has no such issues with its lineage.

Such a wine does not catch on easily. Word of mouth has certainly contributed to a rising awareness, through sommeliers, retail shops and wine publications that have exalted little-known wines like Txakolina. But for an obscure wine to gain traction in the United States, it often requires a tireless importer, too, willing to do the brick-by-brick work necessary to create a market.

André Tamers of De Maison Selections in Chapel Hill, N.C., was not the first American importer to work with Txakolina. But he was the most energetic. In the early 2000s, he detected a need in the market for a wine like Txakolina and worked to introduce Americans to these wines. “They’re simple, they’re fresh, they’re easy, and I think that people are starved for something like that,” Mr. Tamers told me in 2010.

From 2001 to 2009, sales grew from about 12,000 bottles exported to the United States to more than 111,000 bottles. By 2019, according to Wines From Spain, a trade organization, exports had more than doubled again, to almost 230,000 bottles.

Current sales of Mr. Tamers’s brands — he now imports the wines of four producers — are four-and-a-half times what they were in 2010.

“It has never been as popular as today throughout the United States,” he told me in May.

As usual I suggested three bottles to try: Antxiola Getariako Txakolina 2020; Ulacia Getariako Txakolina 2019 and Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina 2020, which is among Mr. Tamer’s producers.

The first thing to know is that these are ocean wines. It’s tempting to lump in Txakolina with relaxed, summery seaside wines from the south of France, Italy or Greece. But these are different, with little of the casual geniality that might characterize the wines of the Mediterranean.

They come instead from the vicinity of the chilly, wind-swept Atlantic. Many of the grapes are grown practically within viewing distance of the Bay of Biscay, from which a breeze blows steadily, offering a kind of natural ventilation that helps prevent disease and mildew in a humid, rainy climate.

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    You get a real sense of place with Getariako Txakolina. It’s typically only 10.5 to 11.5 percent alcohol, with tangy acidity, and the wines are as bracing as a plunge into cold saltwater. Their flavor more closely resembles the aromas of the ocean air there, rather than any particular kind of fruit.

    The Ameztoi was light and fresh. As several readers pointed out, these are not sparkling wines like Champagne or even pétillant naturel. They simply have a light spritz, a bare effervescence that gives them energy and life. The Ameztoi was steely and stony, with faint herbal and citrus undertones. I found it joyous to drink.

    The Antxiola was similarly light, vivacious and stony, with a suggestion of lime zest and a refreshing bitter note as I swallowed.

    Both of these bottles were 2020s. The Ulacia was one year older, yet, if anything, it was a bit more effervescent and lively than the other two, though maybe less angular with rounder flavors of citrus and green apple.

    Did the extra year make a difference? Most authorities recommend drinking Txakolina as young as possible. I’ve followed that guideline, though I confess I have no evidence of its truth, nor much experience drinking older Txakolinas. But one reader, Ken of Frankfurt, reported being invited to a tasting of aged Txakolinas one night in San Sebastián, a city renowned for its Basque gastronomy.

    “For those who love the fresh lighthearted experience of a Txakoli on a summer’s eve, this is something else,” he said. “Rich, deep and smooth, like a well-aged Mosel, it left us longing for more.”

    Another reader, Nancy of Minnesota, said she had recently become obsessed with Txakolina, which she described as “in between sparkling and still.”

    She’s right. While some might assume that Txakolina represents an age-old tradition in Basque Country, it’s actually a modern wine, a product mostly of the 1960s when the Basque government lavishly subsidized vineyards and wine producers in an effort to prevent citizens from abandoning the countryside for the cities.

    Unlike the small estates that have been making wine for generations, most Txakolina producers are high-tech operations. Not all strive for quality, but the best work meticulously, hand-harvesting the grapes and fermenting with indigenous yeast. Generally, fermentation takes place in big steel tanks that are blanketed with nitrogen, an inert gas that preserves freshness and prevents oxidation.

    The nitrogen also prevents carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation, from escaping, resulting in that gentle effervescence.

    Several readers said they have found the wine singularly transporting. Simone in Colorado said that drinking it brings her directly to San Sebastián. Joon Song of Los Angeles said it not only takes him to Spain but to Berkeley, Calif., where he said he first drank it 15 years ago.

    Garrett H. of Tokyo took issue with my suggestion that in Basque Country, people drink Txakolina with just about anything. He suggested that it was better suited for aperitifs, switching to other wines with the meal.

    That was not at all my experience in Basque Country. But don’t take my word for it. Max de Zarobe, with his partner, Virginie Saverys, is a proprietor of Avignonesi in the Montepulciano region of Tuscany. Max is also Basque and has strong feelings about Txakolina.

    “We sometimes pair a suckling lamb with this wine; its acidity rinses out a milky fat that has not yet experienced the greenness of the grass,” he wrote. “But in the hearts of all Basques, a truth slumbers: pairing percebes and Txakoli is the marriage of reason and love.”

    Percebes? Better known in English as gooseneck barnacles, these crustaceans are highly popular in Northern Spain and Portugal though rarely seen in the United States. And Mr. de Zarobe is correct: It’s a great pairing.

    Most readers enjoyed Txakolina with whatever they were eating. Even more important, they understood both the tremendous opportunities that come with access to wines like Txakolina, and the pleasures they offer.

    Rodrigo of Salvador, Brazil, wrote that he has never had Txakolina but that he felt inspired to try it. The “world of wine has a lot of options that we need to know,” he said.

    Anthony of Muskegon, Mich., tried Txakolina for the first time, drinking the Ulacia. Initially he found it uninteresting, he said, but sitting with his wife on their back porch on a sunny afternoon, drinking the wine with Manchego and tinned Spanish octopus, it blossomed to the occasion.

    “Cannot recall a more enjoyable, simpler experience,” he said. “When the wine is right for the time and place, it can be quite fantastic.”

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