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Wines of the Basque Country

La Rioja Alavesa and Three Txakoli DOs

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Basque Country Landscape

Basque Country Landscape

(c) Getty Images, Doug Menuez

The Basque Country, an Autonomous Community in northern Spain, is divided into three provinces - Álava, Guipuzcoa and Vizcaya. It sits on the extreme western end of Spain's border with France, where the Pyrenees Mountains lie, and has hundreds of miles of coastline on the Bay of Biscay. The Basque people are proudly independent, having their own culture and unique language. Although in the last few decades, the Pais Vasco, as it is called in Spanish has become famous for its cuisine, its wine is still relatively unknown.

Wine-making is nothing new to the Basques. Like many parts of Spain, vineyards in the Basque Country have been tended since the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Roman Empire. It seems only appropriate that most of the wines produced in the region are light, fresh, white wines, since Basques have been fishermen for thousands of years, and there are many traditional fish and seafood dishes in the Basque cuisine.

There are currently four Denominaciones de Origen or DOs.

Rioja Alavesa

This area is a sub-area of the famous Rioja wine region, and accounts for about 21% of the area of the Rioja Qualified DO. It is located in the southern tip of the Basque Country, along the French Route of the Camino de Santiago. According to the "Guide to Basque Cuisine", published by the Basque Government, Rioja Alavesa influenced and even promoted wine production throughout the ages, because religious orders located there promoted the art of wine-making.

Most of the vineyards in Rioja Alavesa are situated at the foot of the Sierra de Toloño Mountains. The soil is poor, and contains a high content of clay and limestone, so the vines are planted farther apart. Wines produced here have a fuller body and higher acidity than the other Rioja sub-regions. The primary varieties used in red wines of the area are Tempranillo and Graciano, while Viura grapes are used in the white wines. Most Rioja Alavesa wineries use Tempranillo, combined with small amounts of Viura grapes (less than 15% is permitted), which lowers the color and increases the acidity of the wine.

An unusual characteristic used often in the wine-making process of the area is that of carbonic maceration, or maseración carbonica, where the grapes are not de-stemmed or crushed before fermenting. In Rioja Alavesa,the grapes are placed into large open vats intact and with stems on. Some berries then burst and their juice sinks to the bottom. The yeast that is naturally present on the surface of the grape starts the fermentation. This carbonic maceration process is said to produce wine that is "soft and fruity."

There are 125 bodegas or wine producers in the Rioja Alavesa DO that belong to ABRA (Association of Wineries of the Rioja Alavesa), founded in 1990. Those wineries produce over 30 million liters of wine annually. For a list of wineries and more information about the area, visit the Association of Wineries of the Rioja Alavesa website.

The Txakoli DOs

Txakoli, or in Spanish chacolí is a wine produced near the Basque coast. Vineyards in this area are located above the sea in a mild coastal climate. Chacolí is a young, year-old wine that has been made in the Basque Country for many centuries. It is generally light, fruity and slightly sparkling, with a green tint, high acidity and low alcohol content. It is usually made from the Hondarribi Zuri grape. Because it is a light white wine, it is often paired with fresh fish and seafood from the region. Currently about 3.5 million bottles are produced each year. There are three different Txakoli DOs - Getaria Txakoli, Bizkaia (Vizcaya) Txakoli and Alava Txakoli.

  • Txakoli de Getaria DO - The wine produced here is a young, straw-colored, fruity wine. It is slightly acidic with an average alcohol content of 10.5%. The Ondarribi Zuri grape is used for the majority of white wine production (80 - 90%) while the Ondarribi Beltza grape is used for the rest of the region's wine production, which is rosé and red wines. Getaria Txakoli is traditionally served by pouring it high into the glass, like Asturian cider. An unusual characteristic of Txakoli wine production here is that the wine is left to rest on its lees (the residual yeast) and is not moved, in order to ensure a slightly carbonated wine. Average annual production in the Denomination of Origin is about 2 million bottles.
  • Txakolí de Álava DO - geographically limited to the Ayala valley region, in northern Alava. Cultivation of wine here dates to the first century AD. The primary grapes used are Ondarribi Zuri and the Ondarribi Beltza. This DO has seen production increase five fold in the last 20 years. Currently, average production of this Denomination of Origin wine is 300,000 bottles.
  • Txakoli de Bizkaia DO - Grown in small vineyards scattered throughout the territory of Bizkaia (Vizcaya in Spanish), usually situated on low, southern-facing hillsides near the coast. It is a young wine, made with the white Ondarrabi Zuri and Ondarrabi Zuri Zerratia and the Mune Mahatsa. Average annual production is 1,200,000 bottles. An unusual and difficult to find red Txakoli is produced here, has pinkish tones and is known as "ojogallo".

For more information about wines from the Basque Country, visit the Regulating Councils web sites listed below. Each of them are informative, have photographs of beautiful landscapes, and the ability to change the language to Spanish, English and Euskara (Basque):

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