In August this year, Eneko at One Aldwych opened its doors, the London outpost of the three Michelin starred Azurmendi, in Northern Spain. Renowned for creating fantastically innovative Basque dishes using largely home grown ingredients from the gardens surrounding his restaurant on the outskirts of Bilbao, this is Eneko Atxa’s first foray overseas.
Given my wife and I were due to travel to San Sebastian for my birthday in September, we were keen to try out some Basque food to whet our appetites for the trip. The opening offer of 50% off all food as a soft opening in August clinched the deal.
Although we thoroughly enjoyed all of the food we ate as well as some very theatrical presentation, it was the wine that stuck in my memory. Just down the hill from the Azurmendi restaurant, they have a winery called Gorka Izagirre making the local Txakoli wine from their own vineyards located just a couple of miles from the cellar. The winery is run by Eneko’s cousin Bertol Izagirre, who’s father Gorka Izagirre set up the winery so it is very much a family affair.
Unable to pick which of their estate grown Txakoli wines to select with our meal I was given a sample of each of the wines. I found it quite easy to pick my favourite, the G22. Reminiscent of a top quality Hunter Valley Semillon, I felt this had much more elegance and sense of place than the lighter entry level offering, “Gorka Izagirre” and the heavier the oak-aged “42 by Eneko Atxa” of the more expensive wine. I also enjoyed their dessert wine, Arima.
Given we were passing through Bilbao on route to our hotel in San Sebastian, and with the finely balanced acidity of the G22 still fresh in my mind, I decided to contact Bertol and he kindly invited us to visit. Well, I say invited, more like agreed to host me when I asked if I could come….
We arrived about lunchtime in blazing sunshine, after an early morning flight and a short, fifteen-minute taxi ride to the winery. After being greeted warmly by Bertol, he told us to dump our bags in the cellar and jump in his car. We headed off to visit the vineyards, situated high on a hill, a short drive from the winery. The views were stunning and it was so peaceful up there. Like stepping back in time. All we could hear were the ringing bells of the goats in the neighbouring field, as they wandered happily around munching grass.
Below; the gates to the vineyard, emblazoned with the symbols of Restaurant Azurmendi and Gorka Izagirre reveal a beautiful vineyard
They have 40 hectares of vines. The vines vary in age from 15-24 years old, but the estate feels older. His oenologist Jose Ramon has been making wines in Biscay for more than 25 years so there is no lack of experience.
As we stroll through the stunning vineyard Bertol is quick to highlight the difference in style between the Txakoli from Biscay and the light, slightly fizzy wines made further along the coast in Getaria and served in all the Pintxo bars of San Sebastian. “Our wines have higher alcohol levels and longer maturation, it hurts our brand to be called Txakoli”. He has a real bee in his bonnet about this…. “Getaria say we don’t make real Txakoli because there are no bubbles in our wine and we are not next to the sea, but our wine is different, it has more complexity”.
This is when he reveals his grand plan for the wines of Biscay. He wants to step back from calling his wines Txakoli and to rebrand them as “Basque white wine”. This is not a solo venture. He has the support of the other Biscay winemakers. There is already a close knit community here. They share knowledge as well as facilities. Many of the smaller producers use the bottling machinery at Gorka Izagirre which is much more sophisticated than many of the others.
It is a bold move but it does feel like a very different terroir to that of Getaria. There is no sea bringing with it the breeze for starters. The soil is shallow clay, humidity and rainfall are both high making mildew an issue. To counter this they use fertiliser to kill the grass at the base of the vines. All this makes the cost of viticulture much higher than Getaria where they use pergola to increase yield. Average yield in Getaria is 12,000kg per hectare compared to 7,500kg here.
We tear ourselves away from the tranquillity and beauty of the vineyards to get in Bertol’s car which now is oven hot. Why do they insist on leather seats in hot countries, I wonder, as the skin on my calves sizzles gently onto the passenger seat. Nevermind, it will heal and we are going to get a drink soon…
We have a quick look around what is a very modern and well equipped cellar. It’s amazing what you can buy when you have a three star restaurant to support operations…
Anyway, time for a drink…
And a nibble…
And what a treat Bertol had set up for us. He had read that I had been particularly impressed by the G22 at Enoko in London so he presented us with a vertical tasting going back from 2014-2012.
But before that we had the 2015 Gorka (RRP 8-10 euros). Really fresh on the nose flavours of grapefruit pith with minerals, pepper and spice leading to a salty finish. It was really easy to drink but had elegance and character. It tasted much better now than when I tried it in London.
Onto the main event, the G22 (ridiculous bargain at an RRP of 12-15 euros). We started with the current vintage, the 2014. It had aromas of cantaloupe melon on the nose. Aged on the lees for 8 months, it was really fruity, but the minerality sliced through the melon fruit to make a really complete and complex wine.
Moving back in time to the 2013, it was more honeyed and evolved on the nose and more round on the palate. Still the minerality is prominent but the finish becomes nutty and goes on more ever. Brilliant acidity and balance. Amazing complexity for a wine of this level with only a year or two in bottle.
Onto the 2012, even more evolved (obvs..) but so good. Toasty notes, straw and petrol all present. Really like an aged Hunter Valley Semillon. After tasting the 2012, I started experimenting and tasted them back again and the 2013 and 2014 felt like babies after tasting the 2014.
A fascinating vertical tasting, showing massive development over such a short period. I think there is great potential in the G22 wine going forward and I’d love to see what these wines are like in 5 years.
Its early days though. The first vintage was 2011 and there are only a few bottles left of that on the wine list at Azurmendi so we’d need to go there for (a very expensive) lunch if we wanted to try one of those. Bertol admits they may have been a bit naïve not to hold back some more of these early vintages but he’s learnt his lesson, he will keep wines back going forward to see how they age.
After the G22 we moved on to the barrel fermented 42 (2014). Now, I’m not a big fan of this wine. The oak makes it a bit too rich for me. Bertol admits that it is a bit of a designer wine. They wanted to create a wine more suited to the richer foods that they serve in Azurmendi so came up with this barrel fermented wine. I find the oak obvious on the nose and the wine has a pleasant buttery nuttiness to it, but it could be an oak aged chardonnay from anywhere. It doesn’t have the character and sense of place that the G22 has.
We go on to taste the 2013 which I must admit is much better. It is less rich than the 2014 and feels more integrated. The oak has receded and the acidity has come back giving it better balance. I’m still a G22 man though.
I am also an Arima man. Arima is Gorka’s late harvest sweet wine, meaning “soul” in Basque. Starting with the 2014, it had honey, apricot and orange with a bit of tartness on the nose, followed by a big hit of sweetness on the palate and then great acidity on the finish making it finish nice and light but dangerously so. This just slips down! The 2013 is similar in flavour profile but more complete and rounded with a year more in bottle. A bit more serious and less up and down through the palate.
All in all this was a fantastic tasting and the opportunity to taste a range of vintages, especially the G22, was a real treat.
So what about Bertol's concept of “Basque white wine”?
Well after drinking a lot of Getaria Txakoli (which also has its place by the way!) I do agree that this wine is a different proposition. I am generally of the view that from a marketing perspective that producers from lesser known wine regions should work together to sell the region to a global market, but I have to agree with Bertol that the Txakoli name is confusing and counterproductive.
Most wine lovers know Txakoli as the light fizzy wine they enjoyed with oysters or pintxos in San Sebastian. That wine is cheap but enjoyable and made for immediate consumption. This is a different proposition, it is more complex and has the ability to develop with age. I think there is great potential for these wines, particularly the G22 and the Arima, but not the barrel-fermented 42. I think that should stay in the restaurant to go with the rich dishes they serve there.