Wine: Txakolina a strange but rewarding taste

In 1996, when I tasted my first Txakolina, I thought, “Hm, this is delightfully strange.”

Light-bodied, it often has a little spritz and its flavor reminded me of an oyster shell. “Sparkling oysters shells?” you might say. “No, thank you.” But that was the very first one I had, and while these qualities are common to the wine, it has a lot more to offer.

Txakolina is pronounced chock-oh-LEE-nah, like chocolate but with an “ina” at the end, so despite the Basque spelling, it’s not that hard to say.

Three denominations of origin scattered along Spain’s northern coast comprise Txakolina country. A little red wine is made there — if you like cabernet franc, you will dig these esoteric wonders — but the majority of the plantings are to white grapes.

Hondarrabi zuri is the main varietal, but hondarrabi beltza, a red-skinned grape, and the less common izkiriota and izkiriota ttippia also are used.

Mune mahatsa (sauvignon blanc) and txori mahatsa (folle blanche) are planted as well.

Of the three districts, Getariako is the smallest, but was the first to receive its denomination of origin, in 1989. Bizkaiko became certified in 1994 and Arabako, the largest of the three, in 1991.

While Getariako is fixated on the hondarrabi grapes, other varietals are sometimes employed in Bizkaiko and Arabako.

What about that little bit of spritz?

There are two byproducts of fermentation: ethanol and carbon dioxide.

With Txakolina, the wine is bottled with some residual carbonic gas, giving it a sliver of effervescence. Txakolina sometimes has a briny quality, but it has subtle fruit flavors too that, coupled with its acidity, make it extremely crisp and refreshing.
As a rule, the wines are no more than 11 percent alcohol. A natural with raw shellfish, they are a less expensive alternative to Champagne or chablis with oysters.
Not nearly as obscure as they were just 10 years ago, Txakolinas can be found at retailers throughout the Bay Area and in wine bars and restaurants. No, it’s not the next pinot noir in terms of fanaticism, but the handful that make it our way are generally of good quality.

Here are three of the best:

Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina, 2009 (Basque region, Spain): Getariako is the smallest Txakolina denomination of origin, yet many of the better-known producers are based here. Located near San Sebastian, the Ameztoi family has been making wine for seven generations. Bright and fresh with floral and pear aromas, and brine and lemon or lime on the palate, this is consistently a favorite. Suggested retail: $19

Uriondo Bizkaiko Txakolina, 2009 (Basque region, Spain): This property is very different from Ameztoi. For starters, it’s only 23 years old. The wines are made from mune tahatsa and txori mahatsa, not the hondarrabis, and unlike Ameztoi, which is all stainless-steel fermented, the txori mahatsa (30 percent of the blend) is fermented in American oak. While it still has the briny character that’s a signature to Txakolina, its peach and pear fruit is more prominent than the average and, in spite of the usage of wood, it still has a delightfully crisp finish. Suggested retail: $17

Talai-Berri Txakolina, 2009 (Basque region, Spain): The 2001 vintage was the first time I tasted a Txakolina that I can say I actually loved, not just fancied. Always consistent, this property was erected in 1992, just a few years after Getariako was coronated with the denomination of origin. With briny minerality, subtle peach and lime fruit and a long, lively finish, it’s pretty much as good as Txakolina gets. Suggested retail: $17

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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