02/09/2021

Busman’s holiday

Txakoli – a light, crisp white with a slight sptitz

If you’ve ever been to San Sebastian in Northern Spain to visit the pinchos bars you will certainly have drunk Txakoli – the light, white wine with a slight spritz which the Basque like to pour – with an engaging sense of theatre – into a glass, from an arm’s length. 

My son and I had decided to walk from Irun on the French border to Santiago de Compostela  and Finisterre along the Camino Norte/Primitivo. The Norte follows the Atlantic coast and passes by the pretty town of Getaria which lies about 25km west of San Sebastian. This is the homeland of Txakoli. I had always rather fancied visiting a Txakoli producer and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

Now as it happened, one of the few wine events in London held in early summer was devoted to Spanish wine and included some Txakoli. One producer in particular stood out. I swiftly made an appointment to visit. 

Bodega Txomin Etxaniz was somewhat off the camino and the unhelpful GPS delivered us to the top of a hill, at the end of a track leading nowhere. The coastal landscape is beautiful and the terrain in the basque country provides plentiful steep gradients. I must have imagined we’d pick up where were left off last summer at the end of the Camino Frances, but with an appointment to make it was not proving a gentle start to our 1000km trek.

The vineyards, which are steeply sloped, have a thin chalky topsoil and more clay beneath.

Bodega Txomin Etxaniz

The region has misty mornings, quite a lot of drizzle, and monsoon-like downpours as we soon discovered, but not that day. By mid afternoon, it was pretty hot. The rucksacks, which included a tent for wild camping, were feeling increasingly heavy and I began to regret this ‘aside’ into a busman’s holiday. After all we had no where to stay and might have to resort to our tent some miles hence.

With some relief we made contact with Mikel just before my phone battery expired and within minutes he had scooped us up and we were delivered into the cool of the winery.  

The winery is modern, but the Txueka Etxaniz family’s history with wine dates back to 1649 and the founding of Getaria. More recently Mikel’s father was instrumental in establishing the Denomination of Origin Getariako Txakolina in 1989, which is the oldest DO in Getaria. (This bodega is still very much a family affair. Mikel seems to be in charge of the estate, but works alongside his five cousins)

Mikel under his pergola

There are two traditional grape varieties in the denomination. Ondarrabi Zuri (white) and Ondarrabi Beltza (red). Only a tiny quantity of red is produced. Of the four million bottles produced in the DO only 8,000 are red, but regulations demand that white wine should include some 15% of red grapes and that rosé contains 50%. 

The white variety has very high acidity and so the softer red was traditionally used to dial down  the sharpness. The practice was subsequently written into appellation law. These days the vineyards are managed in a way that the white grape is more naturally balanced. 

Most of the vines on the 50 hectares of Txomin Etxaniz estate (it’s the largest of the 32 producers in the region) are trained on traditional parral, which is a pergola system. This keeps the fruit 80cm to 1m above the ground and away from the humidity which is the downside of the Atlantic’s close proximity. 

There are issues with mildew, but once in a while, in the right conditions, this humidity can produce botrytis and when this happens the family make a late harvest wine called UYDI.

UYDI 2017

This has a delicately spicy mandarine character with lively citrus acidity, a touch of grapefruit and a tangy finish. It had about 70 g/l residual sugar so is not super sweet. In found it quite charming and elegant. 

As you might imagine, with the bunches of grapes suspended from a pergola, the vineyards have to be harvested by hand. The vineyards slope away in all directions, so no one aspect is utilised. Where the slopes become perilously steep, they are not terraced to accommodate pergola but espalier is used instead. 

On this espalier system the fruit is more exposed to the sun and gets riper hitting 12%. The fruit from this section of the vineyard is vinified separately, leaving a touch of residual sugar, and aged in 500l acacia barrels for 5-6 months with some batonnage. It’s labelled Tx.

Bodega Txomin Etxaniz Tx 2018

This has a lightly rounded body and showed ripe lemon and petrol notes; there is no oak showing, rather it has  a denser richer profile than typical Txakoli.

So let’s re-cap on the typical profile for a Txakoli. It’s a slim, light white wine carrying about 11% alcohol with a little residual sugar, which you don’t really notice.  The 5-7g/l of sugar  just nicely balance the punchy note of acidity. It has a slight sparkle – about 1 bar of pressure. This CO2 is natural. When the fermentation is over the tank is closed off retaining some CO2 while the wine ages in tank on the lees. It’s a little reminiscent of Riesling in shape, weight and flavour profile. 

As the white must contain some red fruit, the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and quickly pressed. While for the rosé, the skins are allowed to gently macerate with juice. The skin contact lasts eight to ten hours, or overnight in the press. Rosé represents just 8% of the production and is clearly not what the local market demands 85% is exported. Conversely 85% of the white wine is sold at home, largely to restaurants in Getaria and San Sebastian. 

Bodega Txomin Etxaniz Txakoli

This is the wine which caught my eye in London. At the winery I tried the 2018 which has a vibrant gooseberry aroma that carries onto the palate where it combines with notes of fresh mint. It is bright and tingles with citrus freshness. A light and lively wine. After drinking many a glass of Txakoli on our walk, I can now say that this is a quintessential example of Txakoli.

Bodega Txomin Etxaniz Rosé Txakoli

This pastel tinted wine is light and pretty; peachy and zesty with lively crunch. Just yum.

And even more yummy with food. And so, after the tasting, which followed the vineyard and winery tour, we were able to dive into the delicious morsels we had seen Mikel’s mother bring to the table when we entered the winery. 

Here in Spain the food and wine culture are intrinsically woven and the wines were enhanced by the local specialities. Mikel explained that the anchovies and tuna were prepared and preserved in the traditional way by his mother who buys from the local fishermen. The Atlantic coast here is renowned for its fish and especially for its anchovies. It’s true we were ravenously hungry, but they seemed to be most delicious anchovies and tuna imaginable. The rich tuna made a mellow match with the Rosé Txakoli while the Txakoli was both vibrantly and delicately delicious with the anchovies.    

And suitably sustained, we enjoyed the late afternoon sunshine in Getaria before continuing on the camino, eventually finding a  stunning headland on which to pitch our tent.