Basque Country: Spain’s Best Kept Secret

The sheer diversity of Spain truly mesmerizes me. In contrast to the dry, warm, and sunny Rioja wine region I visited a couple weeks ago, my recent trip to the Basque Country seemed worlds away. Located on the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic Coast, País Vasco (Spanish) or Eskuadi (Basque), experiences a mild maritime climate with rain dominating the forecast most of the year. In fact, it rains so much that the Basque have created a word for the constant mist: txirimiri. Although an inconvenience for city-goers, the rain is much appreciated in the countryside, making the verdant landscapes along the stretch of coast possible.

A holiday in France meant a three day weekend for me, so myself and three friends took a short drive across the Spanish border. Our trip unfolded in the seaside city of San Sebastián, known as the gastronomic capital of Spain. Much larger than I anticipated, San Sebastián, is a buzzing cosmopolitan area lined with vibrant buildings and lush palm trees. We were staying in a cozy apartment situated in Parte Viejo, which just so happens to be a lively area of town offering some of the most popular tapas bars.

So what does one do in a city with relentless rain? Tapas bar crawl it is! The four of us set out on a mission to discover this relatively unknown region through its unique gastronomic offerings and local wines. Let me say, I have had my fair share of tapas in the past, but the tapas culture of Basque Country is unsurpassed to anywhere else in Spain. Called pintxos in Basque, these culinary bites of heaven are traditionally a sliced baguette piled high with myriad meats, seafood, and cheeses and held in place with a toothpick, or ‘pintxo.’ The pintxos are artfully displayed across bar tops just calling to the adventurous foodies walking by.

All that food had left us thirsty so the next day was dedicated to the tasting of the Basque wine: Txakoli (sha-ko-lee). The name is a doozy but the wine itself is sleek and elegant. Made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, Txakoli is a young white wine that is crisp, acidic, and intentionally pairs well with seafood. Dry as a bone and slightly effervescent, Txakoli is reminiscent of a young Champagne.

To get the best Txakoli experience, we headed outside of San Sebastián and ventured to the quaint Basque villages of Getaria and Hondarribia. The lovely port towns are draped with vineyards, whose greens and golds perfectly contrast the briny blue water below.

Located in Getaria on the slopes of Mount Garate, Gaintza Vineyards provided an excellent introduction to the wonderfully different Basque wine. Joseba, fourth generation of the Lazkano family winery, was a delightful wine educator who described the wine making process of Txakoli with a charming accent and passionate poise. Starting in the vineyards, we learned the special trellising method the region uses. Due to the constant rain and humidity, the vines are cultivated at a greater height above the ground to improve the air flow and micro climate below. The result is an infinite sea of foliage that spills down the rugged hillsides, leaving onlookers speechless.

The well informed 90 minute tour concluded with a tasting of the vineyard’s three specialty wines: two whites and a rosé. Joseba artfully displayed the unique manner, called “breaking,” in which the region serves the austere Txakoli. Traditionally, the wine is poured at a distance from the glass allowing the wine to “break” upon impact in order to soften the flavors and release aromas. Spilling and splashing is customary practice and makes this beverage all the more fun.

Our appetite for more Txakoli led us to the wonderfully modern Hirutza Bodega, situated in Hondarrabia, the birthplace of the Hondarrabi Zuri grape. Greeted by the sound of sheep bells and the subtle aroma of grape harvest, the girls and I took our place on the marquee terrace. Our afternoon was filled with glasses of sparkling Txakoli, savory tapa dishes, and great company. It was the perfect ending to a splendid weekend.

Such a misrepresented region, Basque Country is a cultural gem of Spain. Beyond different from any other place I have visited before, this region is rich and varied in terms of traditions, food, wine, and natural beauty. I am already looking forward to my return.