Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Rise of Txakoli

We present you a fragment of an article called "Basque-ing in Wine" published at the Sonoma Valley Sun:

I generally stick with less potent starters. In an effort to broaden my stubbornly limited horizons, W.S. introduced me to Txakolina, a lower-alcohol, perfect hot-weather aperitif wine with unique characteristics, as well as a fascinating back-story.

Txakolina, pronounced CHAW-koh-LEE-nah, hails from the Basque country, an autonomous region of northern Spain. Txakolina wines include red, white and rose, although the white is by far the most abundant.

Txakolina has proud origins, and a history so obscure that there’s not much easily accessible information. W.S. suggested I contact Andre Tamers, owner of De Maison Selections, the largest U.S. importer of Txakolina. In fact, Andre and his wife Cindy Cuomo are writing a book on the subject, due for release later this year.

First I enquire about the name, variously referred to as Txakoli or Txakolina. “Well, that’s a mystery,” Andre says. “One theory is that Txakoli was the house where the wine was made, and Txakolina was the wine.” What is definite, according to Andre, is that Txakolina “has always been a part of the Basque people.” The word itself is in Euskara, an ancient language. About one million people speak Euskara. The language can differ in villages as little as 10 miles apart – the result of interaction with other languages, although Euskara predates modern dialects. In fact, Euskara is the only language that survived the Roman conquest of Hispania in 218 BC. Although attempts have been made to link it to many different languages, Euskara’s origins still remain unclear.

Over the centuries, Spanish supplanted Euskara. The Spanish dictator Franco, ruler from 1939 to 1975, outlawed Euskara, provoking Basque nationalism. Spain revoked this law at the end of the 20th century, and today, a standardized form called Euskara batua (unified Euskara) is taught in schools. Spaniards say “Chacoli,” but you will rarely see that inscribed on any Basque bottle.

Like Euskara, Basque wines nearly disappeared. Vineyards once covered more than 2500 acres. The 19th century European Phylloxera epidemic wiped out Basque vineyards, too. According to Tamers, sheer isolation helped pockets survive. With the advent of new nationalism, the wine industry revived as the Basque government subsidized winemaking. This attracted new people and technology. Wine expert Jancis Robinson writes that since the 1990s Txakolina has improved “noticeably.” For the first-time, Txakolina, once a little wine made in homes, exploded internationally. Basque country is only about the size of Rhode Island. A little more than 400 acres produce wine. That’s expected to expand exponentially. “They don’t have enough for demand,” says Andre. “This year they’re totally sold out.”

What makes this wine exciting is the fresh acidity, minerality and vibrant fruit, the result of Basque’s cooler climate, sandy soils with clay subsoils, and proximity to the Atlantic. It’s best within the first year of its release because the youthful characteristics diminish over time.

In the last decades, winemakers from the Getaria appellation also added a slight effervescence, and a Txakolina ritual evolved based on Spanish cider-drinking customs. Inserting a pourer called “escanciador” the bottle is held high over a pint glass and poured two to three fingers deep. Drinkers take “shots” of Txakolina. Like most Basques, I’ll take mine in a wine glass, thank you very much.

So, whenever you have a chance, enjoy a refreshing glass of txakoli.

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