A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Hondarrabi Beltza - Getariako and Bizkaiko Txakolina, Spain

Autochthonous (pronounced aw-tok-thuh-nuhs) is a fun word.  It's come up a bit in some of the research I've done and I've never bothered to look it up until today.  It's essentially a really fancy word for "indigenous" or "native"  and, for some reason, is used with shocking frequency to describe wine grapes.  If you can wrap your tongue around it after a few glasses of wine, you can throw it around at your next soiree and impress, well, the kind of people who are impressed by those sorts of things.

It came up for me today as I was doing some research on the grape Hondarrabi Beltza.  There are two Hondarrabis: Zuri, the white skinned version (which will be talked about in a separate post) and Beltza, the red-skinned version, which we'll talk about here.  Both versions are autochthonal (I think that's the correct part of speech) to the Basque region, which spans the Spanish/French border in northeastern Spain (and thus southwestern France).  Politically and sociologically, there's a lot of stuff to write about regarding the Basque area, but I'm going to forgo most of that as it falls a bit outside of my sphere of interest.

The area of the Basque Country that we are concerned with here is a sub-section within Spain (also, somewhat confusingly, simply referred to as "Basque Country") which is essentially autonomous and has very little to do with the rest of the country.  This area has much cooler weather than other parts of Spain and gets a lot of rain which creates conditions that don't exactly add up to what one would usually consider prime wine real estate, but the tradition of wine here goes back several thousand years and the people are fiercely independent and take a great deal of pride in the wines they are able to produce from their land.

Within this region, there are three small (and I mean small...each area is less than 100 hectares) areas which produce a wine known as Txakoli (pronounced cha-co-li).  I'll talk more about two of the regions below, but the smallest of the three regions is called Arabako Txakolina and it consists of a scant 50 hectares of land.  This area was created (for DO purposes) in 2003 and, unlike the other areas, it allows for some French grapes (like Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu) to be used.  For the most part, the Txakoli wines are high acid, slightly sparkling white wines made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape with some Hondarrabi Beltza blended in.  

The first wine that I tried was a rosato wine from the Getariako Txakolina region, which is the largest of the three areas with 84 hectares of land under vine.  The blend here is 50% Hondarrabi Beltza and 50% Hondarrabi Zuri.  Both grapes are grown in this region, but for the white wines, the Beltza grapes are pressed and immediately run off the skins so that the wine stays white.  For this wine, I believe that the Beltza grapes may be made into a red wine and then blended with the white wine from the Zuri grapes to create a pink wine, but I'm not totally sure (if anyone knows, please feel free to correct me in the comments).  Whatever the case may be, the importer claims that the wine is made from vines that are over 150 years old.  If you look closely at the label, you can see a little picture of a guy wearing an awesome hat.  That guy is Juan Sebastian Elcano who was a Basque explorer who was technically the first person to circumnavigate the globe (he was Magellan's second in command and took over the ship after Magellan died prior to the circumnavigating journey's end).  When he returned to his home after his trip, he was celebrated with Txacoli wine and they're obviously still pretty proud of him today.

I picked up this bottle of 2009 Ameztoi Rubentis Txakoli for about $20 from my friends at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass, the wine had a pale salmon-pink color and was showing a little petillance.  The nose was very aromatic with fresh cut strawberries and watermelon aromas.  It was all fruit on the nose, but that didn't carry over so much to the palate.  The wine was light bodied with high acidity and just a slight touch of fizz to it.  It clocks in at 10.5% alcohol, but was bone dry with some strawberry fruit but it mostly had a minerally kind of taste to it that reminded me of quinine.  On the whole, this was a little like drinking slightly fruity tonic water, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not exactly a great thing either.  It was very clean and refreshing and would complement a lot of seafood dishes.

The other wine I was able to try was from the smaller Bizkaiko Txakolina region, which has only about 60 hectares of land under vine.  Hondarrabi Beltza is more common in this area and they make more red table wines than the other Txakoli producing regions.  The Gorrondona estate has 12 hectares of land under vine and only two of those are dedicated to Hondarrabi Beltza.  They claim that these vines pre-date the phylloxera epidemic, which decimated the Basque region in the 19th Century.  Prior to phylloxera, it was estimated that the Basque region had more than 1,000 hectares of land under vine.  Phylloxera completely ravaged the area, decimating nearly all the vineyards, and many people didn't bother to replant afterwards, which is why today the three Txakoli regions have less than 200 hectares of land under vine.

I was able to find this bottle of the 2009 Gorrondona from my friends at The Wine Bottega for about $30.  In the glass, this wine was a medium purple-ruby color with a meaty, stewed nose.  There were aromas of stewed black cherries and something kind of tomato-y about it.  There were also spicy blackberry and black plum aromas and an earthy coffee ground smell as well.  On the palate, this was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and medium tannins that had a little bit of a grip to them.  It needed a little while to open up and when it did, there was blackberry and black cherry fruit with some peppery plum flavors and little bit of funk to it.  Many people compare these wines to the Cabernet Franc based wines from the Loire Valley, and I can kind of see that.  It was a little more intense than many Cab Franc based wines that I've had and definitely had a little more funkiness to it.  It was a very savory wine that would go well with many meat dishes.  $30 is pretty steep for what you're getting, but considering the extraordinarily limited production, it's probably not that bad of a deal.

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