André's Travel Log

April 2009: The Basque Country

Part 1: 4/5/09 to 4/6/09

We land in Orduña (Basque Country) and are greeted by traditional Basque music..very nice and folkloric.

I just spent the day talking with Josu from Arabalo Txakolina about his vineyards. His passion for viticulture in this valley where he makes Xarmant is impressive. We checked out a site (Las Viñas)planted up high on the slopes and facing south. This is the stuff that makes the blend that we get so special. Chalk and clay soils with lots of rocks.

His defense of Txakolina and in particular his Txakolina from Artamaño where he lives and works is fascinating. It’s different than the Gipuzcuano Txakolina because as he put it he can get ripeness while maintaining great acidity. These differences are what makes this area fascinating. The diversity is in in the topography.

Next Day Txoko with our Friend Chef Joanjo who is the head of Slowfoods Alava. Beautifull meal in his Txoko (Basque Food Society) in the Town of Vitoria. The highlight of the food is bacalao with Sea Urchin Sauce.

Part 2: 4/7/09 to 4/8/09

The early morning drive from Bilbao to Bakio seems ominously dreary yet nothing could be further from the truth. Rain storms the road and as we near the valley a break appears from the clouds allowing a respite from the rain. The valley is green and the beauty of this once famous red wine area in the heart of Txakoli country is stunning. Andoni, Itziar, Julen and Igoitz run Doniene. All in their thirties, they have undertaken to rescue this domain. They are part of a new generation of winery owners who are reinvisioning an ancient wine growing region. Instead of making volatile and oxidative wines they strive for balance and expression from the indigenous grapes Hondarribi Zuri and Hondarribi Beltza. They believe that it is through the indigenous varietals that the character of their place will be revealed.

Itziar and Andoni came to New York in March and defended theses ideas gaining many friends. To see them again and taste the wines in situ is great. The red is fantastic as is the white. 2008 is a great vintage for them. The next day we head to Etxebarri to taste the glory of cooking over wood. Bittor, who owns the place, does not disappoint. His thoughts on “grilling” are fascinating. It is not about smoke but about aromas. He makes his own coals in a slow methodical process that highlights the aromas of the individual woods. This is one of the most unique meals that we have on our trip. But his Txakoli section needs work and I decide that he needs to be the ambassador for these wines and most certainly the wines of Doniene. The truth is that because Txakoli has always been a part of these people it has never truly been celebrated or revered. It has always just been there overshadowed by other wine growing regions that were more famous. Most notably here in Bizkaia Rioja is king. It is said people have Riojitis.. they only drink Rioja. Rioja Alavesa is part of Basque Country and has always been the wine of choice in Bilbao. To change these habits and overcome prejudices is an uphill task for all the new Txakolineros.

Part 3: 4/9/09 to 4/10/09

We head off to Gipuzkoa, we take a detour early in the morning to Gernika to see the arbol or tree. Turns out Gernika is a lovely town that surprises us with its rich history. Gernika was the center of all governmental decisions for Bizkaia with a type of parlament where the elders converged around a tree to discuss matters relating to the region.

We head for to Getaria for a visit with Ignacio and an almuerzo. Ignacio’s 2008 are delicious and little is left at the winery. In one of the tanks he experimented with micro oxygination at the must level and the result is fantastic. Bigger fruit and rich palate feel. Lunch at Elcano is a fantastic voyage on how little we know about fish in our country. The specialty is whole Rodaballo (Turbot). Aitor, whose family has owned this restaurant for a long time, is revered as a fish specialist. He teaches us how different parts of the fish have completely different structures and resulting flavors. This is a fantastic restaurant that is a must for anybody interested in Basque cooking. That evening we head to San Sebastian for tapas and this visit confirms how great San Sebastian. We try several places each with its own specialties. Gambara, a favorite of Juan Mari Arzak is as good as always. The next day we head to Arzak and are graciously received by Juan Mari and his daughter Elena. The food is stunningly delicious and the wine cellar is equally impressive as the restaurant has a deep cellar of old Riojas..we drink Pomal 76 and Paternina 76. The Pomal is light and delicate. With air it begins to show signs of cork taint but how to tell if it is mustiness or cork and who cares really. The Paternina starts out harsh and a bit industrial but yet with air polishes and becomes amazingly compelling. Makes me think about old school versus new school.

The trip confirms how great this region is and how far Txakoli has to go before it becomes truly recognized by the top restaurants. In our search for restaurants promoting this wine we found a lack of real interest. I think that the changes are happening so fast in the region as it relates to vinification that it will take a while before the newer identity of Txakoli becomes evident.