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.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hondarrabi Zuri - Bizkaiko, Txakolina, Spain

**I've done a lot of research since I first wrote this post, which is summarized here.  The post below still has my tasting note and the early stages of my investigation, but those curious about the identity of Hondarrabi Zuri are encouraged to read the newer post linked above**

When I started calling up my usual sources for today's grape, I wasn't really expecting any surprises.  After all, I'd written about Hondarrabi Beltza here about six months ago and there really weren't any big shockers there.  I figured that writing about Hondarrabi Zuri would be as simple as finding a few facts out about the grape, writing my impressions and moving on.  The first source I checked was the Oxford Companion to Wine and the bombshell was waiting for me in the last line of the Hondarrabi Zuri entry: "DNA profiling has surprisingly shown that hondarrabi zuri is the same as the American hybrid noah."

Regular readers will note that in the last post I wrote on the Turbiana grape, I expressed my frustration with the fact that the Oxford Companion to Wine frequently refers to "DNA profiling" without providing specific citations to the original source material.  This particular entry is no different and it really serves as a great example of why you should always try as hard as you can to find the original source material if you are really interested in learning about something.  I have been scouring the internet for hours and have not only been unable to locate any paper indicating that Hondarrabi Zuri and Noah are the same grape, but I haven't been able to find another site on the internet reporting that information either.  The closest thing I've been able to find is an off-hand reference in a paper from 2002 which was analyzing the DNA of many different Spanish wine grapes (citation: Martin, J, Borrego, J, Cabello, F, & Ortiz, J 2003, 'Characterization of Spanish grapevine cultivar diversity using sequence-tagged microsatellite site markers', Genome, 46, 1, p. 10, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 1 March 2012.).  In that paper, the authors note that "Ondarrabi Zuri," which is actually the proper cultivar name for the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, had a very unique genotype that could likely be explained by its "probable hybrid origin."  Their citation for this probable hybrid origin, though, is an unpublished paper by a different team of Spanish researchers.  What their paper is clear on, though, is that Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza are not related genetically, as they differed at every section of DNA that the scientists analyzed.

At this point, without any specific citation, all I can really say is that Hondarrabi Zuri is genetically very different from other Spanish grapes.  The VIVC database, which does use DNA research to organize their entries, does indicate the species of each grape they have an entry for.  Their entry on Hondarrabi Zuri, though, indicates that it is a vinifera species of vine.  Noah is not listed as an accepted synonym for the grape and, further, if you go to the entry on Noah, that grape is listed as an "interspecific crossing" with a parentage of v. riparia and v. labrusca.  The VIVC is usually pretty reliable but they certainly aren't foolproof and I've found that some of their entries lag a little bit behind the most current research.  However, since I have had no luck tracking down any published papers providing proof of a link between Hondarrabi Zuri and Noah or even between Hondarrabi Zuri and any hybrid grape, I'm going to guess that the VIVC hasn't been able to find any either and that explains their classification of the two grapes within their database.

So, here we are.  The Oxford Companion to Wine says something that could be true, but which is very controversial if it is (after all, hybrid grapes are not allowed in wines made in the EU).  But, since I can't find any other corroborating source, I have to withhold judgement one way or the other.  It seems like the kind of thing that should be pretty obvious since Noah is known for having that "foxy" aroma and flavor bemoaned by so many wine critics.  In the paper cited above, the authors do mention that Hondarrabi Zuri has a particularly foxy character, but I've never picked up on it in any of the wines that I've tried from the grape.  Most other online sources, like Wikipedia, believe that Hondarrabi Zuri is native to the Basque region of Spain.  I can't find any reference for how long Hondarrabi Zuri has been known in the Basque region of Spain, which would be helpful since we know that Noah was created in 1868 in Illinois.  However long it has been there, as of 2004 it was planted on about 900 acres of land in Spain, primarily in the Txakoli regions of northeastern Spain.  There is another grape in the Basque region called Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie which, I believe, is the Petit Courbu of Southwest France.

I was able to try a bottle of the 2009 Berroia Txakoli which is 90% Hondarrabi Zuri, 6% Folle Blanche and, oddly, 4% Riesling.  The wine is from the tiny Bizkaiko Txakolina region, which covers a mere 140 acres of land.  Hondarrabi Beltza is generally the preferred grape here, but not in this wine.  In the glass the wine was a very pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was shy with some white peach and lemon-lime citrus aromas that never really open up.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acid.  There were flavors of fresh lemony citrus and white peach with a touch of lime and a kind of chalky minerality on the finish.  I really enjoyed the contrast between the broad peachy flavors and the sharp, zippy citrus. The chalkiness does eventually give way to a clean, stony minerality as the wine opens up.  I've always enjoyed wines from this region and find that their acidity helps them complement a wide variety of foods.  They remind me of Riesling both in their flavor profiles and in their versatility at the table.  They do tend to run a bit expensive, though, so if you're looking at something at the $10 end of the market, you probably won't find a Txakoli to love, but around the $20 price point there are many options, nearly all of which are interesting and quite tasty.


This issue vexed me enough to email one of the authors of the article I cited above, Dr. Jesús Maria Ortiz of the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain.  Dr. Ortiz informed me that there are two different grapes known as Ondarrabi Zuri in the Basque region.  The most common is the vinifera species used in the wines made in the Txakoli regions of Spain.  This Ondarrabi Zuri is the grape that you taste when you buy wines that indicate that they are made from Hondarrabi Zuri.  The other is a hybrid grape which is "almost inexistent in the region (ie the Basque country) at this time," though it was at one point somewhat widely planted.  I'm not sure why, but in the study cited above, the research group was using a sample of the hybrid grape and not the vinifera grape, which gave them such odd results.  Whatever study the Oxford Companion to Wine is citing probably had the same issue, which would lead them to their bizarre conclusion that the Hondarrabi Zuri of Txakoli fame is the same as the American hybrid Noah.

I further asked Dr. Ortiz if the vinifera Hondarrabi Zuri was related to Hondarrabi Beltza and he provided me with the DNA microsatellite profiles that indicate that the two grapes do not share a common parent and are not closely related to one another despite their similar names ("zuri" is Basque for white and "beltza" is Basque for black).  Dr. Ortiz has infoprmed me that the Hondarrabi part is from a town in the Basque country called Fuenterrabía, which is spelled Hondarribia in the Basque language.  This town is very close to the French border, and Dr. Ortiz's explanation is that several grape varieties came into Spain from France through this town.  When they were distributed to other regions within the Basque region, they were called Hondarrabi after the town they were distributed through.  Many of the other grapes grown within the Basque country are indeed French transplants, such as Petit Courbu and Folle Blanche (and, as noted above, Petit Courbu is known as Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie).

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