Taste: Txakoli wines are refreshingly bracing and light bodied, with a gentle sparkling effect. Aromas of citrus and white fruits, together with herbal notes, are followed by flavors of lemon, lime, apple, pear and sometimes pineapple, which combine with a mineral or saline edge leading to a pleasantly zesty finish. Many exhibit a palate cleansing, sherbet-like quality.
Dry / Sweet: Very dry
Age: Drink while young and fresh – these wines will not keep.
Aka: Also known as Txakoli (cha-ko-lee), Txakolina (cha-ko-lee-nah) and Chacoli (cha-ko-lee).
Other: These wines are relatively low in alcohol (9.5% – 11.5%). They are also moderately expensive.
Hondarrabi Zuri (on-da-rabbi zorry) is the main grape variety used to make the unique Crisp style wine from the Basque region of Spain known as Txakoli (cha-ko-lee), as well as Txakolina (cha-ko-lee-nah) and Chacoli (cha-ko-lee). Wine production in this region of northwest Spain was in decline until a major revival was initiated in the 1980s.
This is one of the coolest wine regions in Spain and the Atlantic Ocean to the north, the Pyrenees to the east and the Basque Mountains that run along the coast govern its climate. Vines grown on slopes overlooking the ocean benefit from sea breezes that help to keep them healthy and disease free. Hondarrabi Zuri is the dominant grape variety here, and it is used exclusively for the production of Txakoli, which has gained increasing attention internationally, especially in the USA.
It was once thought that Hondarrabi Zuri was indigenous to the Basque Country, but analysis now shows that it is in fact the Courbu Blanc variety from southwest France. There is also a red grape variety called Hondarrabi Beltza, but it is unrelated to Hondarrabi Zuri – the word “zuri” means “white” in the Basque language and “beltza” means “black”. Both of these grape varieties are named after the port town of Hondarribia in the province of Gipuzkoa, which is very close to the border with southwestern France.
As many of the grape varieties in the Basque Country are of French origin, such as Folle Blanche and Petit Corbu, it is thought that they may have entered Spain through the town of Hondarribia and were probably planted there for the first time. This may explain why Hondarrabi Zuri and Beltza were named after the town, as it would have appeared to be their place of origin. Indeed, Petit Courbu is known as Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratia in the Basque Country (note: Petit Courbu and Courbu Blanc are different varieties and it has not yet been established if they are related).
Today, almost all Txakoli wines are white, based on Hondarrabi Zuri, but there are some Rosés (usually 50% Hondarrabi Zuri and 50% Hondarrabi Beltza) and a tiny amount of red (made from Hondarrabi Beltza). In the 19th century almost all the wines were red, but when the Basque government revived the industry in the 1980s they encouraged the production of white wine so as not to compete with the world famous red wines of Rioja.
Hondarrabi Zuri is a very vigorous vine and requires a good deal of attention in the vineyard. Canopy management – removing leaves to expose the grape clusters to the sun – is required to help the grapes ripen in this cool climate. Even so, the grapes struggle to achieve full ripeness and consequently acidity is high and potential alcohol (the amount of sugar in the grapes) is low. After harvesting and careful handling, the grapes are fermented at low temperatures and kept covered to retain carbon dioxide released by the process, which gives the wines a slightly effervescent, or spritzy, effect.
All of these elements combine to make Txakoli quite a distinctive wine drinking experience, as the wines are refreshingly bracing and light bodied with a gentle sparkling effect and relatively low alcohol levels (9.5% to 11.5%). These wines are never serious or complex, but they are thoroughly enjoyable summer wines and make excellent partners for fish and seafood; many exhibit a palate cleansing, sherbet-like quality.
Aromas of citrus and white fruits, together with herbal notes, are followed by flavors of lemon, lime, apple, pear and sometimes pineapple, which combine with a mineral or saline edge leading to a pleasantly zesty finish. Many of these wines are left on their lees (dead yeast cells and grape pulp) for a few months to add additional flavor and a small number of producers use oak in the winemaking process.
Hondarrabi Zuri is the predominant grape variety used in the production of Txakoli and many are pure varietals. Depending on the appellation – there are three DO’s in the region – small quantities of Hondarrabi Beltza, Folle Blanche, Petit Courbu, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc may be added to Hondarrabi Zuri. All Txakoli wines should be drunk while they are young and fresh, ideally within the year of release.
In the Basque region it is customary when serving these wines to pour them from above head height into a broad glass tumbler, which causes the wine to fizz up dramatically – it’s quite a spectacle! The majority of these wines are consumed within the Basque region and you are unlikely to find them elsewhere in Spain. However, exports to the USA have been growing and other countries are beginning to show interest.
Finding these wines is not easy, but if you do come across one be sure to give it a try. It should be noted that most Txakoli wines are moderately expensive.
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