BASQUET CASE - A Tale of One Txacoli
Verde que te quiero verde,
Verde viento. Verde ramas
Green I love you green. Green wind. Green branches.
Federico Garcia Lorca
People ask why Txacoli is so expensive and difficult to obtain outside the Basque country. After all it is the greenest of green wines, surely mere water off a Biscayan duck’s back. However, consider the tiny size of the average farm-holding; there are only a handful of producers who can lay claim to more than one hectare of vines and those vines teetering and straggling every which way on slopes, in dells and hollows, cheek-by-tendril with orchard trees and flower nurseries. The climate doesn’t help either being somewhat on the moist side. Then the elusiveness of the producers: the fabled siesta is rigorously observed and the notion of a winery office is faintly risible. It took us three expeditions to find our particular Txacoli and that’s a lot of sloshing and sluicing of crab-apple juice stomach-lined with piles of pinxtos. During the first exploratory trip we fetched up in San Sebastian where every request in every bar (and there were many) for white wine invariably brought out a plastic beaker and concomitant theatrics with the foaming apple-scented drizzle. The characteristic over-the-shoulder-pour hosed the fluid into the glass; it was dismissed rather than left the bottle as if the wine was saying “I don’t care, I’m out of here”. The chalky-hued Txacoli was tart, yet salty and curiously addictive - especially when you’re clenching a fistful of anchovies - a refreshing, cidery sea breeze. I loved it; here truly was a democratic wine; a non-vinous liquid that thumbed its nose at anything as pretentious as a wine glass.
More vinegar on your Pinxtos, sir?
Enchanted by its spritzy esprit we attempted to replicate the effervescent Txacoli experience wherever we went and with whatever white wine we drank. First stop Akelare, a two star Michelin joint perched on some cliffs, a few kilometres out of San Sebastian. The cuisine matched the soulless decor; it had been El Bullied in a sanitised way; there were splits and splots on spoons, bits of foam and other general flummery, but the overall effect was somewhat anaemic and in desperate need of enlivening. In the absence of Txacoli we ordered a bottle of Albarino, shook it vigorously underneath the table till the latent CO2 erupted merrily over the dreary grey shag-pile, and craved something as substantial as an anchovy.
The Txacoli bug had bit, however, and when we returned to the region the following month it was inevitable that we would make the additional detour and drive up the coast along serpentine roads hugging the craggy cliffs pounded by the Biscayan waves in search of the green wine. We stopped in the small town of Guetaria with its hump-backed foreland, the heart of largest of the Txacoli Dos, and commenced our research by finding the best restaurant in town. We sauntered through an alleyway hemmed in by dark shuttered houses past a table of twenty or so locals enjoying a feast. A big banner was tied between two balconies and massive bubbling tureens of stew sat on the table. One half-expected to meet a snorting bull a-strolling up the corrida, as one serendipitously traipsed through these anfractuous cobbled streets. As we reached the harbour the alley unfolded revealing an eating area of numerous tables, families, peripatetic cats and a general flavour of human sunshine. The menu was written in five languages; the English being the most difficult to interpret. Eschewing the inevitable “fish balls” we slavered and slobbered as we watched waiters periodically appearing in order to toss a sizzling slab of bloody red beef or a huge winking turbot onto one of the arrays of thick ribbed griddles set into the brickwork of the inner harbour wall. Meanwhile gaily-coloured fishing boats drew up to the quay-side to offload their cargo of gleaming silvery-scaled denizens. It was a day to relax and toast the concept of manana. With a glass or ten of Txacoli.
We sat and daintily munched fat white asparagus accompanied by puddles of aioli and ordered five bottles of Txacoli from different local producers. It was effectively a blind tasting since the artery-hardening “Xpealladocious” producer names meant nothing to us. Most of the wines were pleasant but as insubstantial as the Atlantic-spumed air, but the Ameztoi had fruit and structural bite and that was the bottle we finished.
After lunch we drove through deserted lanes; nothing was signposted. We found one vineyard seemingly abandoned other than a pair of grubby jeans drying on the wires. Eventually we happened on an old man making his way slowly up the hill and Eric got out of the car to ask directions. The old man was jabbering away animatedly, pointing first in one direction then another, evidently giving exhaustive instructions. Eric was nodding furiously, smiling and thanking him all at the same time.
“What did he say?” I asked
“I have no idea. I couldn’t understand a single word.”
We drove away leaving the old man waving at us on the brow of the hill and delved through tiny little hedgerow-squeezed roads until we came back on ourselves on the outskirts of Guetaria. Eric reversed the car and drove back up the hill, whereupon we came upon the old man again, looking puzzled, but still waving!
After numerous dead ends and multiple re-encounters with our old man whose omnipresence quite unnerved us we finally found the bodega, walked round, called out, but all was quiet except a one-eyed collie dog. This was evidently one extended siesta.
The next day we revisited the estate, successfully avoiding the old man of the sea on our peregrinations and met Ignacio Ameztoi, a vast bear of a man, who showed us around his cellar, accompanied by five bouncing dogs of all shapes and sizes. We tasted the wine again, all spritz and spume, in a wine glass of all things. It was Txacoli after all.
Trawling for grapes in Txacoli (truly a wine of the sea!)