This post is part of our Behind the Bite series: deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.
No drink captures the essence of the Basque Country as perfectly as txakoli does.
While it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Spanish wine, txakoli (pronounced “cha-ko-LEE”) is more than just a drink throughout much of the region. This wine—which has transformed from a humble peasants’ drink to a highly sought-after variety recommended by some of the world’s top sommeliers—represents Basque culture and heritage in every sip.
But if you’re wondering, “what is txakoli, anyway?”—or even if you’ve already heard of it, but want to brush up on your knowledge—read on as we take a deep dive into one of the most distinctly Basque drinks out there.
Photo credit: Ania Wielechowska, Text Overlay: Devour San Sebastian Food Tours
What is txakoli?
To answer that question, let’s take it to an expert. We popped into La Espiga, one of San Sebastian’s oldest bars, to chat with our friend behind the bar, Jesús.
“Txakoli is a white, slightly sparkling wine made with hondarrabi zuri grapes from the Basque Coast,” said Jesús, who along with his three brothers is part of the third generation that’s kept La Espiga going strong since 1928. “It’s refreshing and easy to drink, with high acidity.”
For the family that runs La Espiga, as well as for many Basques, txakoli is a drink that brings people together.
“At my house, we’ve been drinking txakoli since forever,” Jesús said. “We love it so much that we organize an annual trip to one of the local bodegas for all the txakoli enthusiasts who come to our bar.”
Devour San Sebastian guide Claudia agrees that here in her home region of the Basque Country, txakoli holds a special significance that goes right to the heart of where it was made.
“For me, as well as for many Basque people, txakoli is a super special wine that’s just like the Cantabrian Sea in many ways. It’s slightly salty, slightly sparkling and chilly—but absolutely fantastic!” Claudia said.
When we drink txakoli in San Sebastian, it’ll usually be Getariako Txakolina, which is the nearest of the three txakoli denominaciones de origen. The other two—Bizkaiko Txakolina and Arabako Txakolina—help cement txakoli’s status as one of the most diverse Spanish wines: each of the three D.O.s produces a variety that’s noticeably different than the others in many aspects, from the flavor to the way the wine is poured and served.
But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, it’s time for a trip back into the past.
The roots of txakoli
The inhabitants of the Basque Country have been producing wine for nearly as long as they’ve been speaking Basque. The winemaking tradition in the region dates back to the days of the Roman Empire, and txakoli specifically has been made since at least the 15th century, according to documents found in Hondarribia.
For the next 400 years or so, txakoli was relegated to the status of a simple farmers’ and fishermen’s wine, often drank in no-frills caseríos, or workers’ accommodations. It wasn’t until 1989 when the first txakoli denominación de origen, D.O. Getariako Txakolina, was created, helping bring this age-old drink to the forefront of the wine world.
Situated in the idyllic, gently rolling hills of Getaria facing the Cantabrian Sea, the family-run winery Elkano singlehandedly represents the evolution of txakoli perhaps better than any other name in the game.
The Zimmermann-Alkorta family has been producing txakoli since 1830, but shot to prominence after the reopening of their new and improved bodega in 2012. Here, they work tirelessly to produce two equally delicious but very distinct txakolis: Elkano and Juan Sebastián. Despite both falling under the D.O. Getariako Txakolina umbrella, there are a number of differences between the two wines that create a completely unique drinking experience.
The eponymous Elkano is your classic txakoli. After the grapes are harvested, destemmed, pressed, and macerated, they’re fermented until they gain the right amount of body. From there, all that’s left to do is filter, bottle, and drink the wine.
Their trademark special variety, Juan Sebastián, is where things get interesting. The first part of the process is much the same as that of Elkano. But after the initial fermentation period, the wine is stored in special deposits for several months to continue aging. From there, it gets stirred every week with its own lees, or sediment, a technique known in the winemaking world as batonnage.
“This leaves us with a txakoli that has a fuller body and a completely different taste than the normal Elkano,” said Nerea Zimmermann, who along with her parents and brother helps keep the winemaking tradition going strong at Elkano. “The [Juan Sebastián] txakoli takes more than a year to make, from the time the grapes are harvested until the wine goes on the market.”
What both txakolis do have in common—as well as the overwhelming majority of the wines produced across all three D.O.s—is its color. Characterized by its pale golden hue, txakoli is, in most cases, a white wine. But look hard enough and you’ll also find red and even rosé versions—the latter of which is especially popular in the overseas market.
Know your D.O.s
So you’ve found a promising-looking Basque bar—or maybe you even went the extra mile and booked a vineyard tour—and are ready to try txakoli for yourself. But before you start to sip, there are a few other things to keep in mind, all of which have to do with the various denominaciones de origen of txakoli.
As we mentioned earlier, txakoli is made in three distinct D.O.s
- D.O. Getariako Txakolina (Gipuzkoa province) takes its name from the town of Getaria, where much of the product is made. Its coastal location gives the wine a slightly salty touch as a result of the sea breeze, and it’s also the most carbonated of the three.
- D.O. Bizkaiko Txakolina (Biscay province) comes from the low, southern-facing hills further down the coast. The high mineral content in this region’s soil gives the finished product a markedly distinct taste.
- D.O. Arabako Txakolina (Álava province), located completely inland, is the fastest-growing of the three D.O.s. The region is also home to one of the Basque Country’s other characteristic wines: Rioja Alavesa.
The next step in enjoying your txakoli properly comes in the pouring technique. Though your server or bartender will likely handle this part of it for you, it’s still interesting to know—especially if you decide to pick up a bottle for yourself to bring home.
Though you may have seen photos of locals expertly pouring txakoli from a height, similar to the serving technique for Basque cider, this technique is actually only recommended for D.O. Getariako Txakolina wines due to their higher carbonation. Wines from the other two D.O.s are commonly served in a much more familiar way: being poured from a less gravity-defying height.
Looking to the future
Despite its centuries of history, it’s only been in the past few decades that txakoli has started to be taken seriously in the international wine world.
Earlier this year, a team of renowned chefs from around Spain created a special six-course menu as part of the Madrid Fusión event. While each of the three chefs boasts at least one Michelin star, the food took a backseat to txakoli: each of the six courses was masterfully paired with a different variety of the wine, an undertaking aimed at highlighting the beautiful diversity and versatility of txakoli.
The dinner was just one of several recent events celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first denominación de origen of txakoli. Others included the first-ever large-scale D.O. Bizkaiko Txakolina tasting, as well as a photography exhibition documenting txakoli’s growth over the last few decades.
These events, as well as press coverage in everything from Forbes to the New York Times, is proof that txakoli is taking a well-deserved place on the world stage. While it’s no longer the Basque Country’s best-kept secret, locals are proud of this iconic local product—and happy to share a bottle with anyone new to txakoli who they happen to meet in their neighborhood bar. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation!
Want to learn more about txakoli and other Basque drinks? Devour Tours experts James and Ania show you a few of our favorites in the video below.
Join us for a glass of txakoli at one of San Sebastian’s most eclectic bars on our Pintxos Like a Local: Centro Neighborhood Pintxos Tour. It’s just one taste on an unforgettable foodie experience full of the Basque Country’s most traditional and innovative bites alike—we hope to see you there!
Life is too short to speak one language and stay in one place. In 2015, this philosophy took her from familiar Ohio to sunny southern Spain. Usually drinking tinto de verano, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once). Follow her blog, Viatic Couture, for more.