Now that the warm weather is here, I’m looking forward to my favorite summer foods paired with all the wonderful wines that make them taste so much better. Grilled fish, fresh seafood, barbeque, grilled meats, salads and grilled vegetables — along with crisp white wines and fresh red wines; some light-bodied, some not so light. The possibilities are exciting and endless.
If all that sounds good to you, it’s time to check out the foods and wines from the Basque Country of northern Spain. Basque cuisine and wines seem like they were made for summer enjoyment.
What Is Basque Country?
Basque Country is an autonomous community in northwest Spain and southeast France. On one side is the Bay of Biscay, on another the Pyrenees Mountains and on the third the Ebro River. Home to the Basque people, it is divided into seven districts, three in France and four in Spain. The Basque language is unrelated to any current or extinct language and pre-dates the colonization of Spain by the Romans.
In Basque Country, food is a major part of life. There are many Michelin starred restaurants in the cities of Bilboa and San Sebastian, which have become destinations for foodies everywhere. The style of food prepared by these talented chefs is called New Basque cuisine; the chefs take traditional and locally-sourced ingredients and use them in unusual combinations of fish, meat and fruit to create dishes with innovative tastes, textures and aromas.
There’s an abundance of seafood from the Bay of Biscay to the north, and fresh and cured meats, game, mushrooms, vegetables and cheese from inland. This mix of sea and land, along with the Basque tradition of featuring delicious food as the center of any social occasion, makes this a culinary paradise.
Basque Country is also famous for its natural cider (or sidra). Unlike the hard ciders we know here, sidra is made with indigenous varieties of apples, and no sugar is added. Between January and April, visitors can go out and sample the latest vintage at a cider house (or sidreria). Basque cider is traditionally poured into the glass from an arm’s length height to aerate it. The typical cider house meal consists of a cod omelets followed by a large steak cooked rare.
Then, There’s the Wine
It’s important to note that a portion of Spain’s famed Rioja wine region lies in southern Basque Country. The sub-region of Rioja Alavesa is home to some of Riojas oldest wineries.
Here the main grape variety is Tempranillo, along with Graciano, for red wines; and Viura for white wines. Producers here often make their wines using carbonic maceration. Instead of crushing before fermentation, whole grapes with their stems on are loaded into large vats. Some of the berries begin to burst under their own weight and natural yeast on the skins starts fermentation. This process produces wines that are lighter, softer and loaded with fruit.
Grapes from the vineyards located near the Basque coast are used in the production of Txakoli (Chacoli, in Spanish), a light, fruity and slightly sparkling wine that is high in acidity and low in alcohol. Made primarily from the Hondarribi Zuri grape, this light white wine is perfect when paired with all kinds of fresh fish and seafood dishes. There are three different Txakoli regions; Getaria Txakoli, Alava Txakoli and Bizkaia Txakoli.
In all three areas, most of the production is white, but some rosé and red wines are also made from Ondarribi Beltza grapes.
A Few to Try
• 2016 Bodegas Itsasmendi Txakoli. Made with Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie grapes. It’s crisp, fresh and balanced with aromas and flavors of stone fruit, citrus, pineapple and a slight fennel note on the long, crisp finish. It’s perfect with all kinds of fresh seafood and grilled fish dishes. Priced in the low $20s.
• 2015 Tierra Aricola Labastida, El Primavera. Made from 100% Tempranillo, this wine is bursting with aromas and flavors of blackberry fruit with a savory note on the long finish. It pairs well with appetizers, grilled lamb and tapas. It’s priced in the mid-teens.
• 2014 Tierra Aricola Labastida, Letras Minusculus. Made with Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano, this is the perfect summer red. Fresh and clean with complex aromas and flavors of blackberry and cherry, balanced with notes of spice, herbs and Earth. Enjoy with grilled steaks, barbecue and even cheeseburgers. It’s priced in the upper teens.
• Urbitarte Sagardotia, Eusko Sidra Natural. The Eusko cider is made from 100% native Basque apples. It shows refreshing acidity and complex tartness with a briny note. That makes it the perfect match with seafood, but it’s also great with grilled sausages and steak sliders. Belgian Sour Beer and Lambic drinkers will love this. It’s priced in the mid-teens for a .750 ml bottle.
Now that Basque inspired restaurants, foods and wines are becoming more available here, you don’t have to travel overseas to give them a try. What could be better on a warm summer evening than some fresh fish, hot off the grill, and a chilled glass of Txakoli? Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].