A Wine Traveler’s Guide to the Basque Region of Spain
Spanish Basque Country Offers a Captivating Wine Travel Experience Unlike Any Other
What do wine lovers and wine tourists imagine when thinking of Spain? Is it the rugged hillsides and mountains comprising the backdrop throughout the Rioja region? Or perhaps it’s the easy and sociable pours in tapas bars throughout the country; or a glass of crisp albariño while sitting seaside in the Rías Baixas region of Galicia. Either way, wine and Spain are nearly inextricable in connotation for most travelers.
The renowned American novelist, Ernest Hemingway frequented the La Rioja region annually for years and famously expressed his thoughts on European wine culture in his autobiographical work, A Moveable Feast,
“Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
Basque Country… A Trip to the Wild Side
While each of Spain’s wine regions is worth visiting, there’s one that needs a place on every wine tourist’s list for its absolute uniqueness and character: Basque Country.
Basque Country, Euskadi as it’s known in the Basque language, is a rugged coastal community isolated by mountain valleys and the Bay of Biscay. Located in northern Spain near the French border, the Basque region is a politically autonomous community with deeply rooted cultural traditions, an ancient language and distinctive cuisine.
The Basque people are thought to be one of Europe’s oldest races with music, dancing, food and wine unlike any other culture. They are lively, imaginative, and passionate about their history, fishing and their autonomy.
Bilbao, famed for its Museo de Guggenheim, is the largest city within Basque Country. It is the center of industry and a significant port city. It’s a living juxtaposition with shipyards, iron ore and steel factories amidst modern architectural masterpieces and a 14th century medieval district with the city’s lively pintxos bars.
Nearby Gernika-Luma (Guernica) is brimming with history, made famous worldwide by Pablo Picasso’s epic portrayal of the air raid carried out by Nazi Germany at the request of General Franco, Spain’s Nationalist dictator.
Further east along the coast are the cities of Getaria and San Sebastián, the latter among the region’s best-known seaside resort areas teeming with beaches, festivals and a vibrant gastronomic scene.
Getaria, to the west of San Sebastián, is a quieter beach community frequented more by Spanish vacationers than international tourists and is home to dozens of highly-acclaimed pintxos cafes, as well as the 14th century Iglesia de San Salvador.
A Style All Its Own
Basque cuisine is fresh, vibrant, imaginative and full of seafood. With the Bay of Biscay at its doorstep, the region’s fisherman have long since brought home an abundance of gastronomic treasures including salt cod and the succulent hake; while the farmers of the Erbo valley have produced an envious bounty of vegetables, beans, cheeses and meats.
The hallmark of traditional Basque meal preparation lies in its simplicity and cooking “el punto,” or to the point it is exactly right. Gastronomic Societies, traditionally masculine clubs, throughout the Basque Country are dedicated to preserving this culinary history by making food the center of their social relations. Fortunately, many of these dishes will also be found throughout the region and served at the local pintxos bars.
But while there is something to be said for tradition, the Basques are also renowned for their innovative, modern cooking techniques which emerged in the 1970s. This style blends French technique with Basque preparation, combines flavors, uses new ingredients and showcases creativity. In short, Basque Country is a treat for the senses, and we haven’t even touched on the wine!
Say what? Txakoli or Txakolina, pronounced sha-ko-lee or sha-ko-lina, is among the long list of reasons to visit the Basque Country. A white wine typically derived from the hondarribi zuri grape, is the wine served throughout the region.
Txakoli has three denominaciones de origen (DOs) including Txakoli de Getaria, Txakoli de Bizkaia and Txakoli de Álava.
It’s a light white wine, low in alcohol and high in acidity. Slightly sparkling, the wine is served cold and is the perfect match to Basque cuisines including seafood, local cheese, pintxos and even rare or cured meats. It’s an intensely dry wine derived from vineyards sitting above sea-level along the coast of the region.
Nearly 3.5 million bottles are produced yearly, and most remain in the region with only a small portion available for export – which is not due to lack of demand outside of the region, but the result of its local popularity. A meal without a bottle, or two, of Txakoli in this region is a rarity – in other words, perfection.
While Basque Country can be recommended for its culinary and wine delectables alone, there are a few other must-see’s for the region:
- Museo de Guggenheim in Bilbao – designed by architect, Frank O. Gehry, the building itself is an artistic marvel. It features numerous permanent and rotating art exhibits.
- Gernikako Arbola (Oak of Gernika) – located inside a pavilion in Guernica, this 300-year old, petrified oak tree trunk is the symbol of the ancient roots of the Basque people whose leaders once met in Democratic assembly under an oak tree.
- Getaria – visit the dramatic coastline, a 14th century church and any number of renowned cafes
- San Sebastián – the jazz festival is held in July and the film festival in late September. Visit the La Brecha food market or a make dinner reservations at Restaurante Arzak. And don’t forget to check out the beaches!
Still not convinced on why a Basque Country tour trek is a worthy goal, consider the words of a man that has drank and dined the world over:
“You’d have a hard time finding anything better than Barcelona for food, as far as being a hub. Given a choice between Barcelona and San Sebastian to die in, I’d probably want to die in San Sebastian.” (Anthony Bourdain, The New York Times, November 2011)