Wed 09 Jul 2014

Surf And Turf: Tasting The Atlantic From A Great Height

Coastal precipitation in Getaria

Coastal precipitation in Getaria

The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain. It lashes the north coast too with impressive ferocity. Coming from leafy West Wales, where the greenness of my valley depends on regular stair-rods, I know precipitation. But even I was impressed by the quality of the stuff in Getaria, on Spain’s Cantabrian coast.

You don’t just visit this small, but delicious Atlantic town for the weather, though. Among its delights are a striking, if slightly lopsided gothic church bestriding a twisting alley and, in stark contrast, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum, a bold, wavy, trapezoidal glass palace designed by a Cuban architect to honour one of the town’s most famous sons. There are good restaurants too, one with a particularly fine line in freshly landed turbot, and a legendary list of venerable Rioja.

Anchovies in Getaria

The Getaria anchovy is a thing of beauty

Then there’s the Getaria antxoa or anchovy, a thing of beauty and unbelievable concentration, either salted, and lovingly layered in large tubs to gather deep, saline momentum (salazón) or preserved in vinegar (boquerón). They are the snack of choice with the official purpose of my visit, the uniquely Basque white wine Txakoli (or Chacolí depending on your ethnicity). This is traditionally served from a great height by dashing barmen, the better to aerate the bouquet and deliver explosive but momentary flavour, which you must knock back immediately to get the point. The science is unclear to me, but it’s all part of the ritual, and does distract slightly from the fact that most Txakoli is unsettlingly and screechingly sharp.

A better way to get the point of Txakoli is to taste the real thing. An enormous amount of it is made in this part of northern Spain, where there are currently three separate Txakoli DOs, with more in the pipeline. The motherlode, though, is DO Getaria (Getariako Txakolina to you), closest to the ocean, where the ubiquitous white hondaribbi zuri grape, sometimes supported by the red hondarribi beltza naturally achieve a relatively modest and deliciously fragrant 11% ish alcohol by volume. Plantings further inland, which are blended with other varieties, tend to suffer creeping alcohol syndrome, so Lesson One, easily remembered, is ‘get it from Getaria!’

Even here plantings have increased more than fourfold in a quarter of a century, so Lesson Two is to choose your producer with care. Two solid names to memorise, both of which members may recognise are Txomín, and, more recently, Rezabal. We are delighted that the latter has just been selected by Jane MacQuitty of The Times as one of her Top 100 Wines for Summer.

Rezabal has a commanding view of the Atlantic, grey and choppy today, but dramatic nonetheless. The vines are trained on pergolas, as in Galicia to the west, to allow plenty of space for drying breezes to circulate in the wet, mildew-prone climate, where the roses that provide a vital early-warning system for rot are called chivatos (police informers). Ander Rezabal, a drummer in a previous life, and former vocalist Mireya Osinaga are among the ‘mad people’ reviving the fortunes of Txakoli. Wildly popular in the 18th century, he says, it was all but eradicated by the large-scale industrialisation of northern Spain and the departure of a generation of potential vignerons for more lucrative jobs in factories and quarries.

pouring txakoli the traditional way

pouring txakoli the traditional way

The classic Rezabal cuvée is 100% hondarribi zuri, fermented only using the yeast naturally occurring on the grapes, and lapping up flavour from its lees while in tank. Irresistibly perfumed, light, mildly effervescent and a world away from the battery acid poured in urban pintxo bars, it hits the spot with pinpoint accuracy. After a display of raised armery in the cellar, to confirm Ander’s Txakolista credentials, normal height was resumed in the tasting-room where the anticipated anchovies awaited, along with chunky portions of battered merluza (hake), served cold but packing more flavour than I’ve encountered in any fish and chippie. Another wondrous match was the heroic Basque cheese Idiazabal, on the time-honoured principle of matching acidities.

Rather than proposing something preserved or fermented for my regular Flavour of the Month column, I’m planning a Basque-inspired summer picnic of good salted anchovies and a decent Pyrenean sheep’s milk cheese which should be easy enough to round up, even outside the catchment of the UK’s specialist Spanish food importers. Finding the right bottle will be easy (see below).

So, those of you who are unable to get away to Getaria this summer – raise your hands!

Janet Wynne Evans

We currently list the 2013 vintage of Txakoli Rezabal at £9.95 a bottle.

Categories : Spain


  1. Roger Straiton says:

    I live in Sydney but when in Europe always try to have a meal at Elkano in Getaria.Best turbot ever and wonderful staff.Brilliant wine list too with quite a few magnums of excellent Rioja.

  2. John Phipps says:

    My wife and I have visited Northern Spain on a number of occasions in a car, usually via Santander. This is the real Spain with some wonderful Paradors providing local food, but they do eat late!
    When we were in the Basque country it was cider they ‘aerated’ from a great height – very nice too but I will try the wine on our next visit.

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