What is Txakoli?

Historically, the term chacolí has encompassed a series of wines that, for hundreds of years, have been produced mainly in the north of Spain. The social and political changes of the last three centuries have marked the origin and evolution of this wine as well as our current vision of it as a vital cultural and geographical product. This article, leaving aside the above considerations, focuses on Txakoli.

Version en español aquí

Txakoli is the traditional wine of the Basque Country, made from local grapes, almost 98% of which are white. The classic style is a white wine with high acidity, pale yellow color, medium to low alcohol and aromas of citrus fruit, fresh grass and white flowers. A light, lively wine, perfect as an aperitif. The modern style is a more gastronomic, structured, long and elegant wine, which is made with aging on lees or in oak. The jewel in the crown of Txakoli is Hondarrabi Zuri, its main grape. There is also a small production, minimal but interesting, of red and rosé Txakoli.

The identity and uniqueness of this wine is based, on the one hand, on its area of cultivation near the sea and the temperate Atlantic climate. On the other hand, it’s a winemaking tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages, linked to the world of rural farmhouses, which has undergone an enormous change in the last four decades. In addition, Txakoli is protected by 3 Designations of Origin that regulate and promote the production and commercialization of this wine. All this is based on a model of family production, small and medium scale companies, with local roots and small volumes of winemaking of increasingly high quality and complexity.

A Unique Cultivation Context

The Basque Country is a region in the north of Spain, facing the Cantabrian Sea and bordering France. The temperature during the vine-growing months (from March to September) is between 8 and 22º C, with annual rainfall varying between 925 and 1,400 millimeters a year. The terrain is irregular and mountainous, although not extreme heights, with valleys, banks and slopes of varying heights and gradients. The vast majority of vineyards are located on slopes that facilitate drainage and on hillsides with orientations that favor the absorption of light and heat from the sun for the grapes to ripen well.

The vast majority of the Txakoli vineyards are located on soils millions of years old from the Jurassic and Lower Paleocene periods. The components of these sediments are the remains of coral fossils, crustaceans and minerals, making up  marl-calcareous materials and sandstones rich in carbonates, which are combined with areas of hard limestone or clay bedrock. This means that the soils have a neutral or slightly alkaline pH, which is very good for vine cultivation. Another special feature is that due to the accumulation of sediments and movements of the earth’s crust, the layers of sediments and rocks have shifted. As a result, the geological formations of the soil are irregular, with different layers of hard rocks, sediments and sands, arranged in different orientations, often completely vertical or very inclined in relation to the ground.

This geological profile, together with the abundant rainfall, helps the drainage and washing of nutrients and organic substances in the more permeable and vertical areas from the surface to deeper layers, impoverishing the soils and, consequently, favoring the cultivation of quality grapes. At the most superficial level of the soil, there is a combination of textures and varied organic and mineral components of limestone, slate, sand and minerals, which give rise to soils of good quality for viticulture. It is this context that makes the territory and its growing conditions unique and different.

The climatic conditions for viticulture are generally sufficient, but humidity and low sunshine are a problem especially in autumn. Fungi such as downy mildew, powdery mildew, botrytis and wood diseases are chronic challenges for the vineyards, especially in very humid years. The vintage effect in the region can be very marked, as heavy rain, frost and/or hail can cause significant losses, as in 2017 when production in Álava was reduced by 40%. Although climate change is dramatic in some wine regions, for Txakoli it could be considered beneficial in general terms because the global rise in temperatures, in the context of the Atlantic Climate, is a favorable element for the grapes to ripen better. In general terms, the vegetative cycle of the vine has been lengthening slightly in recent years, allowing the grapes to ripen better and more slowly, which leads to higher quality. The sprouting date of the vines is being brought forward in spring and the harvest dates are also being brought forward, although the latter to a lesser extent. Harvesting a little earlier is a positive factor, as it minimizes the risks of rain and humidity in autumn. 

The traditional vineyard planting system was the “emparrado” training system. The vines were tied up and positioned as they grew on rows of double posts approximately one meter apart and joined together at the top. This created a kind of ‘roof’ over which the branches of the vines could climb, with the bunches of grapes and leaves being placed on the highest part, on top of these joints. These vines were not too high, around one and a half or two meters, but they were enough to raise the fruit off the ground and protect it better from humidity and fungal diseases. This system also favored the productivity of the plant, obtaining larger harvests, although the pruning, harvesting and care of the vineyard was very laborious, as well as being entirely manual.

Currently, most of the new vineyards and cultivated hectares have been converted to a trellis system. The vines are lined up in rows according to the orientation of the slopes and the location of the sun, forming vertical plant screens, at a height of approximately one and a half meters. This more modern system has brought advantages. On the one hand, the natural vigor of the vine is better controlled and the plant produces fewer and smaller bunches, compensating the smaller volume with higher quality. On the other hand, the work in the vineyard is much more agile and is carried out more efficiently and quickly. It is no longer necessary to bend down under trailing vines and to harvest with the arms and body facing upwards. Finally, the bunches are still at a suitable, ventilated height to prevent problems due to humidity and to maximize the exposure of bunches and leaves to the sun, favoring photosynthesis on the plant and the ripening of the grapes.

Txakoli Grapes

The main white variety used to make Txakoli is Hondarrabi Zuri, zuri in Basque means white. It is a productive variety, with small and compact bunches, resistant to humidity and well adapted to this area. The most interesting aspect of its profile, along with its aromas, is its natural acidity, the backbone of any white wine. This acidity is what allows its wines to maintain their freshness and intensity and even allows them to mature in the bottle and gain complexity. Although it is a grape prone to mildew, botrytis and other diseases, the work of prevention and treatment in the vineyards  allows enough quality harvest year after year.

Other grapes are also used in smaller percentages. Each winemaker is allowed to use up to 20% of their vineyard area to plant other authorized white varieties. Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie (Petit Corbú), Hizkiriota (Gross Manseng), Riesling and Chardonnay. In Bizkaia and Araba, Mune Mahatsa (Folle Blanche), Hizkiriota Tippi (Petit Manseng) and Sauvignon Blanc can also be used. In Bizkaia, Hondarrabi Zuri Zerratie can be used as the main variety. In general terms, complementary white grapes bring acidity, freshness and more aromatic diversity to Txakoli, contributing to its complexity and ageing potential.

For the production of red and rosé, the latter locally called «ojo de gallo», the Hondarrabi Beltza variety is used, which is authorized in all three appellations. In the past, most of the Txakoli wine produced was red, but today only 2% is red. This ancestral grape has been related to Cabernet Franc. In fact, in some very old vineyards, vines of this French variety have also been found and they were erroneously classified as Hondarrabi Beltza. The latest genetic studies seem to confirm that the Hondarrabi Beltza variety is older and could be the ancestor of Cabernet Franc. Nowadays, some hectares of vineyards are being extended and the reds are arousing more interest due to their uniqueness and freshness. Its rediscovery and the commitment of several wineries to produce quality reds with local expression augur well for its future.

The Txakoli Designations of Origin

Each of the three Basque provinces: Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba has its own Denomination of Origin for Txakoli. In the whole of the Basque Country there are just over 950 hectares of registered vineyards between the 3 Denominations of Origin, which represents 0.1% of the vineyards in Spain or the equivalent of just over 1% of the area planted in the DOCa Rioja.

The Getariako Txakolina/Txakoli de Getaria Designation of Origin was the first to be created, in 1989. It consists of 440 hectares in production, 90% by the sea, with 34 registered wineries and 96 winegrowers. Here the traditional style of Txakoli is made with a bit of dissolved carbon dioxide, resulting in a particularly refreshing and lively wine.

The Bizkaiko Txakolina/Txakoli de Bizkaia Designation of Origin was the next to be created in 1994. It has a similar extension, 425 ha of vineyards, 38 registered wineries and 191 winegrowers. Some more complex styles are being produced in this appellation, such as Txakolis aged on lees or in oak barrels, as well as vintage wines.

The Arabako Txakolina/Txakoli de Alava Designation of Origin was the last to be created, in 2001. Despite its small size, with only 100 hectares planted and 7 wineries, it has a very prominent position in the market as it exports 20% of its production.

The technical role of these three designations of origin is very important in order to manage the regulation, vineyard registers, wineries and the production of protected wine each year. But they also help to promote investment in technology and vine planting improvement. Also they drive, when possible, financial aid and European projects in collaboration with other public administration bodies. In the last decade, the vineyard reconversion plans promoted by the EU have been important for increasing production and quality. The training of professionals and the development of branding and marketing strategies have also contributed to the positioning and sales of these wines.

The Local Txakoli Production Model

The role of the wineries is very important in the Txakoli production model. They are mostly small and medium-sized family businesses with a high level of training and professionalism

Traditionally, Txakoli production was a complementary activity in the local economy and food production in the farmhouses. Wine was made for home consumption and, in good vintages, the surplus was sold. In fact, the origin of the name seems to come from the Basque expression etxeko ain, which in Spanish means ‘for the home’. Nowadays most of the bodegas, some of which are  located in the original farmhouses, are dedicated exclusively to the production and sale of Txakoli. The average size of the vineyards is 3 hectares, generally small and scattered plots. Sometimes access and the use of machinery is difficult due to the slopes and topography, which requires more time and qualified personnel for pruning, thinning or harvesting by hand, among other tasks. Most wineries manage and cultivate their own vineyards, as well as buying grapes from growers who do not make wine. In recent years, improvements in pruning, preventive treatments, manual harvesting and a vineyard management system based on sustainability, together with the use of stainless steel tanks with temperature control and complete hygiene in all processes, are the general trend in today’s wineries.

Today a wealth of knowledge and experience has been capitalized in the wineries, with collaboration between the 3 appellations and innovative projects. Resources have been invested in vineyard studies to better understand the soil, check how different varieties adapt, treat diseases, as well as the development of different winemaking techniques. The Fruit Growing Station-Experimental Winery in Zalla, promoted by the Provincial Council of Bizkaia, has played an important role in promoting these research and improvement projects.

More and more wineries in the three territories of the Basque Country are producing wines aged on lees or in barrels. These are attractive, more gastronomic wines, with texture, complexity and ageing potential. There are winemakers working with pre-fermentation maceration with the skins, plot selection, ageing the wine in concrete eggs or organic production, all these with interesting results. Experimentation is also underway with late harvest sweet wine styles and sparkling wines. These wines cannot yet be officially labelled under the designations of origin, although work is being done to adapt the regulations and they could possibly be included in the future as Txakoli wines with designation of origin.

Based on the above, when we refer to Txakoli we should not only think of the traditional style of young and vintage wine but also of all the new examples of aged wines, which improve over the years. Txakoli, in essence, is a wine that carries in the bottle unique grapes from a landscape of valleys and the sea together with the work and history of the producing families. Wines that combine with concepts such as tradition, innovation, gastronomy and uniqueness.

By Teresa Guilarte.

Sommelier and WSET educator

Co-founder and Head of training at Artean Wines

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