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It’s incredibly crisp, refreshing, and hard to pronounce. Meet Txakolina (chah-kuh-leena), a white wine that comes from a small but compelling area of northeastern Spain.

In this bonus episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers reviews the history behind the grapes, regions, and wines of Basque Country. He also shares his first run-in with the wine, and explains why everyone should try Txakolina for themselves.

Tune in to learn more about Txakolina.


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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. “Damita Jo” is the best Janet Jackson album, right?

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 1 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast bonus season. That is a lot to say, but we are here at the bonus season, and it’s so exciting.

It’s not easy to read, it’s very easy to say, and it is a pleasure to drink. If you guys have not heard of Txakolina, we’ve got to talk about it. If you have and you’re confused, let’s get some stuff out of the way.

So, in 2010, I was invited to this exclusive party in Manhattan. It was in a membership-only club, and it was hosted by a wine importer at the time. I had a restaurant and a wine shop, so I was buying wine. I was invited to a Txakolina party. I had no idea what that meant. But, when I left that party, I was obsessed with this wine. The party was kind of crazy. They actually had kegs of this wine, which was wild. You’ll understand that in a second. Txakolina, if you’ve never heard of it, is awesome, and it should be on your radar. I’ll tell you why. It might be one of the most refreshing wines you’ll ever have on your palate. It’s crisp. It’s refreshing. I don’t know if you remember the Portugal episode, but it has a slight effervescence to it, just like the Vinho Verde wines do in the Minho region in northern Portugal.

It’s a whole different story, where these wines come from. The wines are very interesting, but even more interesting is where the wines are from: the northern part of Spain, in a place called the Basque Country. To some, it’s called Basque. To others it’s called País Vasco, and to others it’s called Euskadi. I can’t admit to fully understanding this, but Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions. From what I understand, they’re not like states — like in the United States of America — but they do have borders and their own governments within them, just like states would have their own state constitutions. The leadership of these regions are actually presidents and not governors. I don’t know. I don’t really understand it too much.

What I do know is that the Basque region of Spain is known as ferociously independent, more so than a lot of other regions in Spain. It makes sense. Reading about the history of this part of the world, reading about the people of this country, is just incredible. It’s fascinating stuff. I think it’s a historical anomaly, if you will. The Basque region is very small, in the northeastern part of Spain, bordered by the Pyrenees to the east, the Bay of Biscay to the north, the Cantabrian Mountains to the west, and the Rioja region and Ebro River to the south. But, at one time, the Basque Country was known as Vascone. Their territory went from the Ebro River — which is now south of the Basque Country — over the Pyrenees, going north to the river Garonne, which is the southern river that borders Bordeaux. That’s a lot of real estate, am I right? Now, of course, it’s a very complicated history. It’s fascinating and it’s complicated. Over time, it gets decimated. It gets smaller and smaller, until it’s one of the smallest areas in the northeastern part of Spain.

What’s really cool is that, even though this land and the people of this land were increasingly restricted, the language of the people in the Basque region was never Romanized. The language they speak is ancient to the point where there’s a lot of theories as to where it came from. It is a language that, when you look at it, is very confusing, but at the same time, it’s just extremely fascinating and beautiful — unless, of course, I’m pronouncing it. I’m going to try my hardest, but I apologize in advance for anything sounding weird. It’s not the language, it’s me.

What can be confusing is that there are multiple names for this area. Outside the border of the Basque Country, it’s often referred to as País Vasco, which is a reference to the old, ancient region that it once was, the old country. In general, it’s called the Basque Country, which you see if you’re looking at the wine situation. Basque is said to be an evolution of the word Vascon, but within the borders of the Basque Country, they call their land Euskal Herria. It means “our country.” Their language, which we refer to as Basque, is called Euskara for them. Of course, Spanish is spoken here, but this is their ancient language that they’re really holding onto. When it comes to wine, they use the ancient language for that.

The wine situation in this area is interesting. About 100 years ago or more, there was a very healthy wine-growing region going on. That little louse we talked about last season, phylloxera, completely destroyed that. It never really came back to what it once was. This region of Spain, because it’s protected by a mountain range — the Cantabrian Mountains and the Basque Mountain range — is very wet. It’s a high elevation. It’s very mountainous. It’s very close to the Bay of Biscay, which is the Atlantic Ocean. Because of that mountain range, a lot of the rains get trapped in that region. It’s not the best wine-grape growing region, just like Champagne is not the best wine-grape growing region. Just like Champagne, the people in this area wouldn’t let a little bit of rain and weird weather get them down after phylloxera. These wine growers and winemakers in the Basque region held firm to their local varieties and built a small, yet very significant, local wine market. It eventually moved its way out of the region and onto a lot of places. This kind of wine comes to us and Germany, but most of it is localized and consumed there. That’s one of the reasons why wines coming out of the Basque region have the local language on the labels. The majority of it is consumed there.

What’s cool about all of this is that — even though the language is really foreign to a lot of people — the terms are pretty simple. There are two varieties that are used to make wine in the Basque region. There’s a white grape called Hondarrabi Zuri and a red wine grape called Hondarrabi Beltza. That sounds very different. All it really means is this. Zuri means white in Basque. Hondarrabi is a reference to a town. It’s the white grape of the town, Hondarrabia, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Beltza means red in Basque, so Hondarrabi Beltza is the red wine grape of the town of Hondarrabia. That’s just a reference to where they think the variety came from. These varieties are native to this part of Spain, or at least the Pyrenees. We’re going to get into the specific wine regions in a second. One thing to know is that the majority of the wine made in the Basque region is from Hondarrabi Zuri, the white wine. Over 80 percent of the wine made in this area is white wine. Hondarrabi Beltza, the red wine grape, does make red wine. It’s light and peppery. It’s very good, but you don’t see it on the American market. I had a chance to have it and was very lucky to have it. You’re not going to see it around. If you do, it’s kind of like Cabernet Franc, but a little juicier. On our market, if we ever see it, it’s in a rosé version. It’s blended a little bit into the white for rosés from this area.

In the Basque Country, there are three DOs, or three appellations, and they’re some of the smallest wine regions in Spain. Here is where the word Txakolina comes into play. Txakoli, in the Basque language, roughly means village. Txakolina means “of the village,” basically. There are three DOs in the Basque region that make Txakolina, and the word is a reference to where the wine is made. The first wine region to be awarded to this region, which was in 1989, is the most popular one. It’s in the very eastern part of the Basque region, about 18 miles from the French border. It’s very close to the Pyrenees. The vineyards are mostly in from the coast, just south of a main coastal town called Getaria. The appellation is called Getariako Txakolina. It means “the village wine of Getaria.” Now, get this. This wine region has only 201 acres under vine. It is the principal wine region of the Basque Country, one of the smallest in Spain, but the largest in the Basque. It’s crazy. It’s about 25 miles away from San Sebastian — in the Basque region it’s called Donostia — so it has a really big tourist attraction very close to it. This is where tapas are from. This appellation really defines what this wine is to us as an American market. It is mostly white. There’s some rosé, but they’re mostly white. They’re made from the Hondarrabi Zuri variety. They’re made in a way that has a slight fizziness to them. The thing about this area is that everything is about height. The vines were once trained at a great height so that fungi couldn’t get a hold of these grapes, because it’s been such a rainy region. The land itself is very high. It has a significant elevation because it’s right before a mountain range. Because of its fizzy nature, it’s a tradition in this area to pour Txakolina from a great height into the glass to get the fizziness going. Here, they make the most out of the 201 acres under vine that they can, giving us some of it, giving Germany some of it, but giving a lot to themselves. Good on them. I mean it is their village wine, right?

Going west along the coast from Getaria, we run into one of the major cities of the Basque region. It’s called Bilbao. It’s a very industrial city. It’s highly populated. But, surrounding Bilbao, is the Basque country’s second-largest wine region at 144 acres. It’s named after the province that it’s located in, which is called Bizkaia. The name of the DO is Bizkaiko Txakolina, or Txakoli de Bizkaia. Basically, it means “the village wine of this province.” Of course, the province is also called Vizcaya, which is a reference to the Biscay Bay, which is a reference to the Vasco Country, which is a reference to Basque. It’s all interconnected. These vineyards are also just in from the coast. What’s unique about this particular wine region is that it has a predominance of a grape called Folle Blanche. This is a grape derived from Gouais Blanc, which we talked about all the way in the first season. It’s very old-school. Here, they call it Bordeleza Zuria. It’s blended with Hondarrabi Zuri, So the result is a clean, crisp, fizzy white wine with a touch of herbaceousness.

Now, the thing is, with 144 acres, we’re not going to see a lot of this on the American market. If you’re looking for it, you can find it and probably get it delivered to you. But it’s not easy to find. This was the second of the three awarded to the region in 1994. The last of the three we shouldn’t even really talk about, because there’s only 50 acres under vine in the region. It’s south of Bilbao in the Basque Mountains, and it’s still humid there. It doesn’t get above 68 degrees in this part of the Basque country. It’s further south, towards the Ebro River, almost bordering on the northern part of Rioja, and it’s located in the province of Araba, or Álava. This gives name to the DO, which is called Arabako Txakolina, “the village wine of this province.” As usual, they have Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza, but they also have a grape called Gros Manseng and Petit Manseg, which are very prominent over the Pyrenees in southwest France. Here, they don’t call them that, of course. It’s the Basque Country. They call Petit Manseng, Iskiriota Tipia and Iskiriota. I’m not going to lie. I’ve never tried these wines. They’re only 50 acres. If anybody knows how to get a bottle from that place, please let me know. I want to try it.

So, that is the Basque region. That is the wine made there. That is Txakolina, the village wine of the Basque region. We’re really only going to have the Getariako Txakolina, and it’s going to be clean, fizzy and with bright fruit. It’s always consumed young. It doesn’t matter what the region or DO is for all three of them. These aren’t age-worthy wines. These are wines to be celebrated now. One of the reasons why it’s consumed so much in the region is because it’s enjoyed young, from a height, poured into a glass, made fizzy, paired with tapas.

Oh, man. You’ve got to get into Txakolina, guys. It’s awesome, and it’s around. The rosé is very cool. You get that little hint of pepperiness because Hondarrabi Beltza can have that little Cab Franc thing that I said. I have this idea: Cab Francs from this area. Huh. OK, I’m going to digress, but you get a little bit of a peppery note from the Hondarrabi Beltza in the rosés from Txakolina. Guys, enjoy.

Oh, and that 2010 party I went to? If you can find Txakolina in a keg, it’s awesome. It’s not as traditional as pouring from a great height from a bottle, but pouring from a great height from a keg hose makes it a little easier to get into the glass. OK, I’ll talk to you guys next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.