“I love the bad vintages, because it’s a challenge for good winemakers,” says Ismael Álvarez, the sommelier of Bilbao restaurant Nerua as we drive to the txakoli vineyards of Itsasmendi in Spain’s Basque Country. “In good years anyone can make good wine.”
This year hasn’t been a good one for txakoli, the wines of Spanish Basque country, which are traditionally limited to slightly sparkling, dry white wines with high acidity and low alcohol content, most often made from the hondarribi zuria varietal. Additionally, it has been a particularly bad year to convert the vineyards to biodynamics, which is mostly unheard of in these conditions, though they’ll argue that there’s never a bad time to push the boundaries of how natural a wine can be.
There have been wild swings in temperatures this year, though winemaking in Basque country has never been easy. The green, mountainous region can be wet and cold and gets less sunlight than anywhere else in Spain. The resulting, low alcohol wines were mostly consumed in the same places they were made or homes around San Sebastián and Bilbao, unlike the wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero, from where exports continue to balloon.
“Twenty years ago, Basque wines were high in acidity, like vinegar, and not interesting. They weren’t known outside of Basque Country,” says Álvarez, as we arrive to one of Itsasmendi’s two dozen or so small plots of grapes. “Here they are making some amazing wines.”
Txakoli, pronounced “chock-oh-lee,” is simply the word for wine in Basque Country, as well as parts of Cantabria on Spain’s Atlantic coast and some parts of northern Castile and León. In Spanish Basque Country, there are three primary regions – Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Alava – and the txakoli is a little bit different from each. If you have had txakoli in the U.S. it has probably come from Getaria, the oldest and largest Denominación de Origen (D.O.), part of Gipuzkoa, and the largest producer of the wine. Alava is smaller and further from the coast, leading to wines that are less acidic and fuller bodied. Bizkaia, which includes Bilbao and where Itsasmendi’s vineyards are located, has clay soil, resulting in wines with higher minerality.
With its bodega set in Gernika in the middle of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, Itsasmendi has 40 hectares of vineyards near nine towns at different microclimates spread out around Bizkaia. This particular sloping vineyard at 300 meters in altitude, bounded by dense evergreen forests and within a bird migration path, was layered with different varietals, from hondarribi beltza (red txakoli) to Riesling. in an effort to experiment with the terroir, this was the case in many of their plots. More important then vineyards, it’s the feeling of the land that they are exploring. From one place to the next the grapes come out completely different.
“Txakoli is wine from Basque Country, not a style,” says Garikoitz Ríos, who founded Itsasmendi in his house in the early 1990s. “We need to keep working on the meaning.”
Ríos has experimented with growing nearly twenty different grape varietals, has fermented in three different types of amphora (or tinaja in Spain), and a red txakoli that’s 65 percent pinot noir. The resulting wines can vary radically, though they are turning heads. The people in Bilbao tend to say “This isn’t txakoli. It’s a white wine from another part of Spain.” Álvarez considers their Artizar, a 100 percent hondarrabi zuri wine from a blend of different vineyards, one of the great wines of Spain.
Ríos sometimes drastically adapts harvests to the ever-changing weather conditions, as he did with a 2016 late harvest wine, a particularly challenging in this terrain and climate. Everyone told him to harvest, but he was patient and it turned out wonderfully.
“Sometimes the countryside talks to you,” he says.