1. How to pronounce this lovely white grape
2. Some background on the grape and why the name brings to mind a weird junior high memory for me
3. Info on the Basque country where the wine is made
4. Three funny things about Txakoli
5. A review of Ameztoi, the biggest exporter of this salty, delicious vino
I'm a sucker for a challenge: A wine that I have no idea how to pronounce definitely counts.
So when my friend who works at a wine store pulled out one I'd had several years ago and loved, Txakolina (clearly pronounced chock-oh-LEE-nah, I mean that's what I would have called it right away...um, or not), also called Txakoli (CHOCK-oh-lee), I was on board all the way. In a tall, green bottle that looks an awful lot like Vinho Verde from Portugal, the wine actually has some stuff in common with the light, slightly fizzy juice from its far western neighbor.
But rather than a combination of Portuguese grapes Loureiro, Trajadura, and Alvarinho (known as Albariño across the border), this wine is made mostly from a local white grape called Hondarrabi Zuri (not to be confused with Hammurabi, the Babylonian king whose code included the "eye for an eye" concept. As a total tangent, I will never forget the dude or his code since my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Diamond, accused me of plagiarizing a paper on the topic. Didn't she know that it was just that my dad wrote most of the paper in his efforts to teach me how to write by example? That's what he explained when he defended me against her accusations. Ah, the memories.)
The grapes are grown in the autonomous Basque Country, an area in northeast Spain, where people with a separate ethnicity, language, and history from the Spanish live.
Here in the Cantabria Mountains, on steep slopes with breezes from the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean, this local white grape grows. The area has a lot of humidity, rain, and is susceptible to frost and cold, so the Hondarrabi grows on southeast facing slopes high up on trellises to maximize sunlight and minimize wetness, which could cause rot.
There are a few funny things about this wine:
1. Essentially no one drinks Txakolina except the people in Basque Country and people in the US! Until the 1980s it was a local wine, mostly homemade, and served with snacks or alone as an aperitif (to drink before dinner and stimulate appetite). Then US sommeliers got their hands on it and now hundreds of thousands of cases roll in and are slurped stateside in the summer.
2. No one knows why the wine is called Txakolina. There are theories, but it's unclear why it's not called Hondarrabi or something else.
3. The wine used to be nearly all red and made mostly from the Hondarrabi Beltza grape. But like the rest of the vineyards in Europe, this grape nearly died out with phylloxera, that killer bug that Americans exported to France on an ocean liner, which destroyed most of the vineyards in Europe before being stopped. When the Basque government encouraged a replanting initiative they focused on incentives for white grapes to avoid competition with Rioja.*
There are few other regions that make Txakolina but if you're shopping for this little gem, you're most likely going to see a Txakolina Getariako, with the second name indicating the area from which the wine hails. The largest producer is the one I'm reviewing below...so let's get to it.
The Wine: 2011 Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina
Grape: 100% Hondarrabi Zuri
Where it's from: Gipuzkoa, Spain
Color: Almost clear and spritzy with small bubbles because they ferment the wine under really cold temperatures and wind up with a blanket of carbon dioxide over it that makes it fizzy.
Taste: Like sucking on a salted lemon. It was very tart with high acid and it tasted like lemon salt water. The wine was spritzy and reminded me of a more tart version of Vinho Verde.
Drink or sink?: Drink. I really liked how fresh the wine tasted and the saltiness would have gone perfectly with fish or salty nuts like cashews or Marcona almonds. I completely respect that the Basques have it with every meal -- from fish to heavy meat to vegetables -- but for me it's not a wine for everyday. That said, for fish or seafood, I'll choose it any day. It's a great alternative to Albariño, a light style Verdejo, and Vinho Verde. Definitely worth the difficulty to pronounce it and one to put on your list for next summer.
And as a last fabulous fact about this wine, it's imported by De Maison Selections, located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina -- home of my and M.C. Ice's MBA alma mater! Go 'Heels!