Maybe you’ve done a pintxo crawl around the narrow cobbled streets of San Sebastian or Bilbao. You probably sank a fair few low flat tumblers of the pale, green appley white with a slight spritz along the way, which makes an excellent foil to the local seafood. Txakoli seems like a simple wine at first, and it can be – thirst-quenching, refreshing. If you speak to a passionate local producer like Joseba Lazkano from Gaintza Txakolina you’ll understand how the drink is deeply entwined with local traditions and food culture.
Four generations of the Lazkano family have produced and sold Txakoli. José Antonio, grandfather of the current owners, used to make wine at home for family consumption, and to sell locally, until they set up the Gaintza cellar in 1923. Gaintza isn’t the family name, it’s to do with where their vineyards are – “gain” means high-up site in Basque. Their vineyards are up on the hills above the fishing town of Getaria, where soils are a shallow layer of clay and chalk over deep granite bedrock.
There are three DOs for Txakoli: Arabako, Bizkaiko and Getariako. Gaintza own 25 hectares of vineyards in Getariako, a mix of older plantings on high pergolas, and newer terraced vines. They mainly grow Hondarribi Zuri, the most common and traditional grape for Txakoli production, along with some Chardonnay and Hondarribi Beltz which is a red grape. In their zone a minimum of 80% of the grapes need to be Hondarrbi Zuri, 20% Petit Corbu, Gros Manseng and others varietals are allowed in the blend.
“It’s impossible to be organic in the Basque Country, it’s so cool and damp, mildew is a constant threat”.
Joseba says it’s impossible to be organic in the Basque Country, it’s so cool and damp, mildew is a constant threat. Joseba and his brother practice Viticultura Integrada, they do the best they can in challenging conditions – in a good year they can make 140,000 litres of wine but in a terrible year such as 2013 they produced just 50,000 litres. They believe that they can reduce their vines’ dependence on copper and sulphur and spray less. They work with local fishermen, who know the weather better than anyone else, which means they never spray before rain – a total waste as it all gets washed off and goes into the soil. As a young company with eyes firmly on the future they want to set an example in their area by working sustainably. Their packaging is recycled, they use organic ink for their labels and they are working to produce an ecological Txakoli.
Looking down over the vineyards to Getaria
Harvest is around the end of September when the grapes are mouthwatering, ripe, with persistent flavour. It takes around 20 days with 25 local workers helping the family. They want the grapes back in the winery quickly to avoid oxidation, the maximum time between the vineyard and the winery is 90 minutes. They do a long slow press in the afternoon and overnight, then cold settle the must at 12 degrees centigrade for 24 hours. Winemakers used to cover their barrels with wet blankets and open winery windows at night bringing the coastal breeze in to cool the wines. But today they ferment in stainless steel at a controlled 15-16 degrees, lasting 25-30 days. In neighbouring DO Bizkaiko they ferment at a higher temperature and allow the wines to undergo malo. Gaintza wines have a very low pH (3.1-2) and can have 13-14 g/l tartaric acid.
“In the past to market their wines before bottling all the local bodegas took part in a “Txotx” in April or May when the wines were ready – this translates to “open the tap” in Basque”.
The wineries would invite the local people in, serve some food and quite literally open the taps on their wine barrels to allow people to taste the wines so they could decide what to buy. That sounds like a lot of fun, I wonder how much wine was left in the barrels by the end? We tasted through the current releases with Joseba in the much more pedestrian environs of our office:
The bright, zesty Gaintza Txakoli, refreshing with a citrus tang, is natural a partner to fried fish or seafood.
Aitako, which they first started making in 2006, is more complex, it’s barrel fermented and aged on lees. A blend of Hondarrabi Zuri, Hondarrabi Beltz and a touch of Chardonnay from a special plot established by their great grandfather, the oldest Hondarrabi vines are 100 years old. It has a beeswax, floral and pollen nose. It’s still mouthwatering with a long finish but the acidity is less pronounced.
They make just one tank of the Gaintza Roses using Hondarribi Beltz a rare cousin of Cabernet Franc from a 1 hectare plot. They ferment the red grapes and blend with a white wine. They bottle at 0 degrees to keep the slight spritz in the wines and leave on lees for three months with no batonnage.