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  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
  • The metamorphosis of txakoli
1. Coastal vineyards in Getaria (Gipuzkoa). 2. Inland Bizkaia. 3. Álava. 4 Upaingoa farmhouse or caserío in Oñati. 5. Pergola-trained vines. 6. Soils. 7. New vessels. 8. Modern labels. Photo credits: A.C. y Y.O.A.

Wine regions

The metamorphosis of txakoli

Amaya Cervera | October 13th, 2020

The intense field work carried out this summer by the two Basque journalists behind SWL (Yolanda Ortiz de Arri and myself) has helped us to rediscover our land, as well as txakoli’s new geography, both on a physical and intellectual level. The number of areas under vine is on the rise on the three txakoli appellations -one for each of the three Basque provinces: Bizkaia (DO Bizkaiko Txakolina), Gipuzkoa (DO Getariako Txakolina) and Álava (DO Arabako Txakolina)-, new styles have emerged in recent years and the most ambitious producers are working hard to prove that their top wines can age gracefully.

Whether you are a wine geek or just curious about Basque wine, we highly recommend visiting the area to enjoy its rich regional cuisine and breathtaking, mountainous scenery both on the coast and inland. There is plenty to choose from: vineyards overlooking the sea in coastal villages like Getaria and Zarautz; winding, narrow roads in inland Gipuzkoa; small valleys surrounded by mountains in Bizkaia and the green, wild vineyards of northern Álava which stand in sharp contrast to the neat sea of vines on the foothills of Sierra Cantabria in Rioja Alavesa, on the southernmost part of the Basque Country. 

Eating and drinking go hand in hand 

Given the Basque Country’s rich culinary tradition, many visits to producers can be rounded off with a gorgeous meal in wine-friendly restaurants. Beyond the obvious places such as Elkano and Kaia-Kaipe in Getaria, which are regular destinations for wine lovers, Spain’s TV star chef Karlos Argiñano, who runs a restaurant in the neighbouring village of Zarautz, is also one of the partners behind Txakoli K5; in Hondarribia, on the border with France, Hiruzta has partnered with restaurant Alameda to include dining facilities in the winery. And in inland Gipuzkoa, Bengoetxe’s ancient Basque farmhouse and organic vineyards in Olaberria are next door to Zezilionea, the best restaurant in the area to enjoy national and international wines. 

Fine dining choices in Bizkaia range from Azurmendi, Eneko Atxa’s three Michelin-starred restaurant in Larrabetzu which is just upstairs from Gorka Izagirre, his uncle’s winery, to Remenetxe, in Gernika, where diners are welcomed by Jon Andoni Rementería, best Spanish sommelier in 2018, whose restaurant is only a few metres away from Itsasmendi. In a more casual atmosphere, chicken restaurant Marko in Kortezubi looks over the biodynamic vineyards tended by Oxer Bastegieta, who is behind some of the most unconventional txakolis in the region. The tour could appropriately end in Bat Gara, near Amurrio in Álava, and in restaurant Bideko nearby (photo above). Owned by one of the two partners behind the winery, it is housed in a beautiful caserío tucked away among mountains. 

A small vineyard, a local wine

With just under 1,000 hectares in the three appellations, txakoli is not a big business but it is deeply rooted in the area. Its production is strongly linked to the Basque Country’s traditional farmhouses or caseríos (the term comes from etxeko ein: home-made in Basque) and it was a popular drink in the local taverns. In 1975, the book El viñedo español stated that it was made for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes: “It has subsisted because the Basque people like to drink it as part of their tradition”. At the time only 59 hectares remained in Bizkaia and 25 in Gipuzkoa. Álava was not even mentioned.

However, in txakoli's heyday, vines thrived all along the Basque coast, from Hondarribia to Portugalete and onto Santander further west. Vines were also widely planted inland in Bizkaia, in the Encartaciones area to the west, as well as in the bordering regions of Ayala (the current DO Arabako Txakolina) and Mena Valley in Burgos. The regions’ skinny, acidic wine with dubious ageing capacity was produced under protectionist policies. Sales of wines from outside the region were not allowed until the local production had been drunk. Traveler Christian August Fischer, unimpressed by the quality of txakoli, mentioned in Voyage en Espagne aux années 1797 et 1798 "a light drink that the locals call chacolí which serves more as a refreshment than as a fortifier". 

Protectionist policies, which were in place between the 16th century and the first part of the 19th century, are extensively documented by Alain Huetz de Lemps in Vignobles et Vins du Nord-Ouest de l’Espagne and by Mikel Corcuera and Manolo González in Chacolí Txakolina, who write about a sort of “quality pyramid” in those days. Cider was at the base of the pyramid, followed by txakoli and then wines from outside the region (mainly Rioja and Navarra but also Bordeaux, whites from Castilla, reds from Toro…). Crowning the pyramid were sherry and ribadavia, considered to have medicinal properties. 

The evolution of vineyards in the Basque Countruy by Alain Huetz de Lemps

It cannot be said then that txakoli was a quality, sough-after wine that travelled outside the region where it was made -that would have implied a surplus and markets to sell it. Later on, the low-alcohol, acid, spritzy version of txakoli managed to conquer American palates as it marked a turning point in the perception of Spanish wine in the US. The spritzy style is now pretty much limited to the province of Gipuzkoa, where it is still widely popular in coastal areas. It has virtually disappeared from Bizkaia and Álava, where top producers don’t even take it into consideration. Bertol Izagirre, from Gorka Izagirre in DO Bizkaiko Txakolina, sums up the general feeling in his appellation: “We want to contribute to the evolution of txakoli so that it is not just seen as a young, fresh wine that we drink in the Basque Country.”

Production areas

In the past, some wines produced in bordering areas were also called Txakoli or Chacolí as it is spelt in Spanish. According to Humberto Astibia from the University of the Basque Country, as well as the regions mentioned earlier, txakoli was also found in the French Basque regions, mainly AOC Irouléguy with which it shares many grape varieties; eastern Cantabria (the remaining vineyards are now part of GI Costa de Cantabria), the Pamplona basin (where producer Luis Moya has recovered txakolingorri or red txakoli) and Miranda de Ebro in Burgos. The latter two are part of the Mediterranean basin which means that wines were made with grape varieties grown in the Ebro valley such as Garnacha and Tempranillo. It makes sense then to stick to the Atlantic character of vineyards grown in valleys whose rivers flow onto the Bay of Biscay

Wouldn’t it be easier then to have a single txakoli appellation with several subareas? This was suggested by Ana Martín, a winemaker with extensive experience in the three DOs, in this post published (in Spanish) last year in Vila Viniteca’s blog. 

Arguably, txakoli's most homogenous area comprises the villages of Getaria, Zarautz and Aia (see photo below), on the coast of Gipuzkoa, which is strongly marked by the influence of the sea. Several producers in Getaria told us that the best vineyards are located between Mount Gárate and the sea. Pergola-trained vines are grown on slopes with gradients up to 20%. Bunches hang well above the soil to avoid humidity in an area that registers up to 1,600 mm. of rain per year.

The DO Getariako Txakolina expanded to include other villages across the province in 2007. There is more variation in inland areas as we witnessed in our visits to Bengoetxe in Olaberria (around 900 mm. of rainfall and colder nights with storms more likely to come from Navarra than the coast), Urkizahar in Beizama (green and rugged with frequent fog in the valley and vineyards at 450 metres; sea influence and rainfall similar to coastal areas) and Upaingoa-Marqués de Riscal in Oñati (continental climate, lower altitude and rainfall around 1.000 mm.). These three producers, all of them established in the 2000s, work with trellised vines and produce significantly lower yields than in the coast. 

In Bizkaia, Bakio, on the coast, and Balmaseda in Encartaciones inland are two of the most traditional txakoli areas, yet vineyards spread out across the whole province. South and southwest exposures are the most sought-after in order to avoid the influence of the north. Soils and micro-climates vary greatly, and rainfall ranges from 1,000 to 1,300 mm. Itsasmendi, with vineyards in many different locations, is currently immersed in a categorization of areas and sites. Partner and technical director Garikoitz Ríos says that on some years they need up to 30 days to complete the harvest. They have established their own classification based on three ripening stages: grapes in Leioa or Erandio provide structure and are the first; next comes Urdaibai, which adds elegance and complexity, and the third week is for the high altitude vineyards in Morga and Durango, which are a good source of acidity.

In Alava, where there were up to 550 hectares under vine in 1877, the grape growing area extends along the upper basin of the Nervión, the river that flows into Bilbao. Formerly known as the "Ayala lands", it was administratively separated from Alava and Bizkaia until it became part of the former province in 1841. In a way, it could be considered an inland extension of the vineyards of Bizkaia. While the Atlantic influence is still present, there is less rainfall (about 900 mm.). According to Txema Gotxi (Bat Gara), budding occurs later resulting in a delay in the harvest. The malic acid in the grapes falls, but total acidity is maintained at 8g/l. It may seem surprising, but some of his wines can reach 15% abv.  

From spritz to ageing with lees and beyond 

How do these wines compare with the light-alcohol txakoli poured from a height into tumblers? Visitors to some of the wineries in Getaria are given wine pourers as a gift, often with some piece of advice: unlike cider, wine should be poured at a distance of about one hand. It is worth remembering that, paricularly in Gipuzkoa, cider and wine have historically coexisted as the most popular beverages; both are part of the province's cultural heritage and folklore.

Consultant Iñaki Kamio, of AZ3 Oeno, who has worked for the DO Getariako Txakolina since its creation, says that the wine "was made as it had been passed down from generation to generation". He describes txakoli as a "side product to the activity of the farmhouse, which was primarily livestock farming. The grapes were usually picked around October 12th with 9.5-10% abv. and fermented in old kupelas or vats letting the sediments to deposit at the bottom. Once the wines were clean they were bottled unfiltered by hand. Many wines had just finished fermenting or were undergoing malolactic fermentation in the bottle thus generating carbon dioxide. And the more carbon dioxide they had, the more popular they were".

In the past, txakoli from Bizkaia was also of the spritzy type, but perhaps due to the fact that the vineyards were dominated by the uninspiring Folle Blanche, varietal research and high quality still whites were encouraged. 

Depending on age and personal experience, Basque consumers may disagree when it comes to defining txakoli. A university friend from Getaria tells me that txakoli is a dry wine (she doesn’t think much of commercial, slightly sweetened txakoli), to be drunk young. However, my experience at bars in Bizkaia is that consumers go from easy-drinking Verdejo or white Rioja to the vibrant, acidity-driven txakoli with no sign of carbonic that is usually produced in this province.

The first step towards complexity was achieved by increasing ageing times with lees, a practice which is now widespread in the three DOs, often underlined by the term berezi (special) on the labels. Itsasmendi pioneered this style with its Nº7. "We are picking more and more grapes with a capacity to be aged on lees because we have greater knowledge of the sites with better ripening potential,” says Garikoitz Ríos. 

Climate change benefits northern regions and increases their appeal among Spanish leading producers. Marqués de Riscal has reached an agreement to consult for and sell Upaingoa wines in Oñati (Gipuzkoa). With ample experience making white wines in Rueda, Luis Hurtado de Amézaga sees great opportunities in this Basque region. He highlights the importance of having an indigenous grape variety like Hondarrabi Zuri, and is a staunch advocate of aging it under lees to gain volume.

Another interesting approach comes from the Masters of Wine behind Peninsula Viticultores, who were introduced to the area by Gorka Izagirre, their partner at Bodegas Badiola in Rioja. For Andreas Kubach MW, "the problem with traditional txakoli is that it does not go much further than Muscadet or low-alcohol Vinho Verde; it is challenging to show terroir because grapes do not reach full ripeness."

From ancient tradition to modern technology

This view might be controversial if you think of wines like Gaintza in Getaria, a light txakoli with acidity and saltiness that manages to deliver a sense of place. But the truth is that the most ambitious producers in the three Basque DOs are looking for concentration, which normally translates into moderate yields and full ripeness. Itziar Insausti from Doniene Gorrondona in Bakio (Bizkaia) looks for structure both in musts and wines and believes that wines change a lot when yields exceed 9,000 kh/Ha. At Itsasmendi, Garikoitz Ríos prefers to speak of Atlantic viticulture and focus on achieving balance in the vines. He says that, within a range of potential yields between 6,000 and 11,000 kg/Ha, top quality can be achieved in all cases depending on the aptitude, features and location of the vineyards.

Reds, rosé and even bubbly

The range of styles has expanded considerably in recent years. Oak is still uncommon and the right balance is not always achieved, but the trend is towards larger vessels and even foudres. It makes sense because in the past txakolis were made and aged in barrels similar to those used for cider (some can still be seen at Bodegas Ameztoi in Getaria as shown in the photo below). Perhaps the closest experience to those wines of the past is Údico, a txakoli made by Roberto Oliván (Tentenublo, Rioja) with grapes from Álava aged in chestnut barrels.  2014 is the only vintage that was made. "As they had few resources, they must have done long fermentations without racking and with short ageing periods", he concludes. Oliván, who in the past was a consultant to Talai-Berri, Bengoetxe and Bat Gara, is convinced that serious, outstanding wines can be made in all three Basque appellations.

And, as in other wine regions across the country, experimentation with all sorts of containers and production methods is underway. Although stainless steel dominates overwhelmingly, in our visits we have also seen jars, concrete eggs, foudres or bottles on stacks; and we have tried txakolis aged with skins, a wine without sulphites by Basa Lore and others under a veil of flor like Loretxo by Oxer Bastegieta or the oxidative-style Aromas del Sur by Bat Gara.

Bizkaibarne, a versatile winery with joint wines and individual projects by some of its partners such as Alfredo Egia and Oxer Bastegieta, is a true experimentation centre with biodynamics applied in the vineyard, wines with minimal intervention and limited use of sulphur, which sometimes results in malolactic fermentation, a rare practice in the area. Wines such as Gure Arbasoak (Oxer) and Rebel Rebel by Alfredo Egia or Hegan Egin that the latter makes in partnership with Imanol Garay, a Basque working on the other side of the border, are some examples.

Although many wineries have a classic range with an entry-level txakoli and a lees-aged one, producers with more expertise or curiosity may also have one aged in oak and/or a single-vineyard cuvée. Despite the fact that red grapes are almost residual, the category is generating greater interest. In addition to well-known brands from Bizkaia such as Beltza (Gorrondona), Eklipse (a Pinot Noir blend by Itsasmendi) or the original and scarce Filoxera (Gure Ahaleginak), Gorka Izagirre has just launched Ilun; and in Álava Tantaka has also launched a red txakoli.

In Gipuzkoa, Hondarrabi Beltza grapes are usually mixed with whites in traditional vineyards and pressed together with white grapes or used in rosés. Kamio says that this is not the case any more in new plantings, which are entirely planted with white grapes in wider rows so tractors can be used. "That is the reason why the  rosé tradition has disappeared. In fact, txakoli used to be slightly coloured. Some tanks would be whiter, others a bit reddish. Nowadays, txakoli from Gipuzkoa is white and rosés are sold abroad". Usually a blend of 50% red and 50% white grapes, modern rosés have been a commercial success since Ameztoi launched Rubentis at the request of its American importer, De Maison Selections. In fact, most of the rosé production is destined for the American market. 

Reds are rarer. Apart from Talai-Berri, that pioneered the category in Gipuzkoa, Ameztoi produces Stimatum, almost exclusively for the United States, and we also had the opportunity to taste Hiruzta red. Ripening and balance is often more challenging than with white wines, but there is room for growth in this field.

The area's versatility is also evident in the late-harvest sweet wines made by Itsasmendi (Urezti), Gorka Izagirre (Arima), Txomin Etxaniz (Uydi) and Astobiza. The Atlantic climate means that they are not cloying, easily achieving a good balance between acidity and alcohol, and they are citrusy and delicate. They stand a world away from the concentration and raisiny notes that are dominant in most Spanish winegrowing regions.

Sparkling wines deserve a separate mention. Although in very small quantities they are beginning to be part of the portfolios, be it white or pink, particularly in Gipuzkoa. This makes sense given the high acidity and malic acid found in the area. All the sparkling we tried showed some strong points, regardless of whether they are made in the traditional or ancestral way: local varieties seem to be very suitable for bubbly; they respond well to ageing for periods of over a year and evolve fairly slowly. Izar-Leku, the joint project of Artadi and the leading Basque cider maker Zapiain, with Frenchman Raphäel Bérêche from Champagne as consultant, offers very high quality. The area' s potential for sparkling wines was noted by the traveller Alexandre de Laborde at the beginning of the 19th century, who, as Alain Huetz de Lemps points out, criticised the poor quality of txakolis and suggested: "If they were made carefully, their roughness would be corrected as the fruit matured. Properly fermented, they would be capable of developing into sparkling wines almost as good as Champagne".

Qvo vadis, txakoli?

With such striking style differences, particularly in the mid and upper ranges, the clearest defining element in txakoli is acidity. At this point, it might be worth asking whether the word txakoli itself might not be a burden for more ambitious styles. The Spanish Language Academy, as Ana Martín notes, still defines txakoli as a "light and somewhat sour wine made in the Basque Country, Cantabria and Chile".

Master of Wine Pedro Ballesteros suggested at a meeting in Bizkaia a couple of years ago that the term "txakoli" should perhaps be limited to the more traditional wines, whilst giving more freedom to the more adventurous winemakers. 

A certain confusion is clearly perceived from the outside, which is also evident on the image. In her book The Wines of Northern Spain, Sarah Jane Evans MW, pointed out that, as with other wines with strong local wines, the packaging does not give a clear message. "Some of the bottles are green glass, some brown, most of them are German Riesling shapes, though the more ambitious and pioneering ones are Burgundy bottles. These are growing pains, but they are awkward while they last".

The fact that the three designations of origin continue to operate as isolated entities does not really help in this regard either. A common narrative built on the history, farming traditions and particularities of the different territories would be more easily understood as a basis for explaining their diversity and complexity. The production structure of the area, on the other hand, is highly atomised. Smaller wineries have obvious difficulties in making their wines known beyond their local surroundings, often in spite of having interesting wines.

If we add to this the fact that growth is naturally limited by the orography, the difficulties to obtain planting rights and the high price of the land (€200,000 per hectare for vineyards in good locations in Getaria), the best future for Txakoli is to assert its position as a great Spanish white.

The DO Bizkaiko Txakolina, always more open to new ideas and one which has indirectly set the pace for Álava, is drafting amendments to its regulations to create a category of txakolis with minimum ageing and classification periods starting in the following June after the harvest. "The aim is to officially recognise the existence of these txakolis so that they can occupy their rightful position on the market", says the Secretary of the Regulatory Council, Antón Txapartegi.

The best presentation card for txakoli as a serious white wine is its ageing potential, which producers of all three appellations now proudly claim. We were able to verify this in vertical tastings in Bizkaia with Itsasmendi's Nº7 and Artizar, and Doniene Gorrondona's Doniene and Beltza; in Gipuzkoa with the K5, and in Araba with Txakoli Uno.

In the future, there will also be a need for greater transparency and clarity about the work in the vineyard and the challenges of sustainable viticulture on the difficult path towards becoming organic. Very few wineries are certified: Urkizahar, Jon Goenaga and Bengoetxe in Gipuzkoa and only Ulibarri in Bizkaia. Iker Ulibarri, who registered his land with the Organic Farming Council in the early 2000's before planting the vineyard, had no doubts because "in Iroulegy it had been done for years and it was easier inland (he is based in Gordexola, on the border with Alava)", but he acknowledges that this type of farming is very demanding.

These difficulties are inherent to the status of txakoli as an "Atlantic wine", but that is also where its attraction lies. It is not surprising that, with their broad international outlook, the Masters of Wine at Península Viticultores were very clear that these two words had to feature prominently on the label of their wine.


Historical evidence on this matter is scarce, but it seems clear that until the 16th century, txakoli was essentially a white wine; later there was a change in taste towards claret and red and, in fact, there are written documents from the early 18th century describing it as a reddish wine.

Alain Huetz de Lemps speaks of "a light and acidic wine made from different varieties, many of which were imported from France a century ago" and mentions the reds Gascón and Seña, together with muscats such as Frontignan and Albilla grapes which were eaten as table grapes. He also mentions the gradual disappearance of Gascón because of its high vulnerability to oidium (the fungus arrived in Spain in 1850) and its replacement by the "French vine" (Parra Francesa), a white variety that proved to be much more resistant. Could it be Folle Blanche? Maybe, because Hondarrabi Zuri and Beltza on Gipuzkoa's coastal vineyards were greatly damaged by the fungus. 

The book of the 1877 Madrid Wine Exhibition does not dwell on this issue. It says that in Bizkaia, Parra Francesa "makes up the majority of the old vines that have been preserved and almost all the new ones". Among the red varieties it mentions Bartolomé, Graciana, Prieta, Seña and Verdeja. A rather negative review of Gipuzkoa is given: "The wine industry is of no importance in this province; a grape of very poor quality is grown in a very small area, which does not fully mature, and from which a wine called Chacolí is obtained, with low alcohol and not very good flavour". In Álava, muscat and red varieties found in the Ebro Valley are mentioned.

Most of the ampelographic studies of the 20th century (García de los Salmones in 1914 or Marcilla in 1954) mention both Hondarrabi Zuri and Beltza, but it is significant that, much more recently (El Viñedo Español, 1975), they are simply referred to as Zuria (white) and Beltza (red), although it was acknowledged that, despite their limited viticultural significance, the provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa had "some particularly distinctive local varieties".

The varieties currently used to make txakoli coincide with many of those grown across the border in France. The preferred varieties are Hondarrabi Zuri (Courbu Blanc) in white and Hondarrabi Beltza in red, although there are also experimental vineyards of Pinot Noir in Bizkaia. Hondarrabi Beltza is a descendant of Cabernet Franc and therefore belongs to the same family as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Carmenère. However, it plays a very minor role in the vineyards; barely eight hectares in Bizkaia, two in Alava and Gipuzkoa does not even count them.

In whites, the second most important variety is Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratia (Petit Courbu). It often appears mixed in the vineyard with Hondarrabi Zuri, indicating that the plants were not always correctly differentiated. There are specific plantings of this variety in newer vineyards, which has dark and rugged leaves, small, tight bunches and lower yields. Many winemakers prefer it because of its regular yields and greater aromatic complexity, although at least in Bizkaia, it seems to behave somewhat differently in coastal and inland areas, where it seems to perform better. The Regulatory Council of this province is in the process of changing its status from a recommended variety (limited to 20%) to a preferred one, thus validating the commercial reality.

Left to right: Leaves of Hondarrabi Zuri, Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratia and Riesling

Izkiriota Tippia (Petit Manseng) is scarcely present, but producers such as Oxer Bastegieta are particularly fond of it because it is thick-skinned and hence suitable for organic farming (his late harvest txakoli is made with this variety). It produces wines with high alcohol and acidity, so it is of interest for producers seeking more concentration. "It easily reaches 13% abv." says Alfredo Egia of Bizkaibarne.

Izkiriota (Gros Manseng) is also authorised in all DOs. In terms of international varieties, Riesling is permitted, but Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia also allow Chardonnay and Bizkaia, Sauvignon Blanc. Of these, Riesling is the most widely used, especially in Alava and Bizkaia, where it adds complexity and pleasant floral notes to the blends. 

Bizkaia plans to authorise Cabernet Franc (Berde Saria in Basque) after documenting its presence in the province's vineyards. After all, it seems now clear that this variety originates from this side of the Pyrenees. 

Of the varieties mentioned in historical texts, Señá plants are preserved at the Oenological Station in Zalla (Bizkaia). This grape, which Abela mentions in 1855, is being recovered in Santander, where it was also traditionally grown. As for Gascón, the work Variedades de Vid en España considers it to be a synonym of Espadeiro from Galicia.


André Tamers on the progress of Spanish wine in the US
Doniene Gorrondona, the spirit of coastal txakoli
Txakoli comes of age
Txakoli: a guide to producers and wines
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