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La Vuelta a España Stages 13-14: Rioja & Txakoli

In our next installment of La Vuelta a España (check out the first, second and third installments), we visit the iconic region of Rioja, and its under-appreciated neighbor, Txakoli.

A few years ago, Ryan and I conducted a regional report on Rioja knowing very little about the region and its wines. We were cognizant of its fame, both nationally and internationally, but were convinced that its glory was all hype and no bite. And though it is true that its reputation as a high quality region has allowed some wineries to gain an undeserved leg up, much of what we found was truly phenomenal.

When coming to Rioja, think Tempranillo. If there is any region in Spain that has fashioned this iconic grape into something phenomenal, it’s here. Think pure black cherries, blackberries, chocolate, cigar box and black pepper, wines that can either bowl you over with their assertiveness and strength or lull you into a gentle, soothing state of pure bliss. Garnacha Tinta is another red grape that takes center stage in this region. Renowned for its rustic personality, it typically shows a fresher more vibrant style than its brethren in Priorat. And of course, let’s not forget Mazuelo and Graciano, two grapes typically used in blends: Mazuelo for acidity, and Graciano for its structure and aging potential.

As for whites, look for Viura (also known as Macabeo), Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca, the latter being one of our favorite grapes in the world! But since we chat so much about its gorgeous floral characteristics, let’s focus on Viura. Viura in Rioja crafts vibrant, structured wines that have given wineries like Lopez de Heredia a cult following – and deservedly so!

Any place where wine is so fundamental to a location’s identity will result in a culture of food that accompany their wine. And although I believe that a food culture is prevalent worldwide, ranging from spicy to bland and rich to light; if I had to sum up Spain‘s food culture, or specifically that of La Rioja, in one word, that would be: ingredients. The perfect example of this is Calle Laurel, located in Logrono. This street is lined with dozens of bars dedicated to a selected few ingredients. From fried pig’s ears (read this!) to grilled mushrooms, and from jamon iberico to regional cheese, the ingredient is the star performer, and stellar act at that. Additionally, look out for: asparagus blanca (gigantic white asparagus), chorizo (a smokey, spicy meat that will make your knees buckle), lechal (suckling baby lamb), piquillo peppers and chuletas (grilled pork chops, best cooked over vine trimmings).

Located just north of Rioja, Txakoli is a region that we’re dying to visit but have yet to do so. Txakoli wines are traditionally fermented in foudres, which are very old, large oak barrels, but most of the txakoli produced today is fermented in stainless steel vats. Wines of Txakoli come from 1 of three appellations. Arabako Txakolina in Basque, Chacolí de Álava in Spanish, comes from the far north-western end of Álava. The main grape here is Hondarribi Zuria. The second region is Bizkaiko Txakolina in Basque, Chacolí de Vizcaya in Spanish, and made in almost all of Biscay, except for the far western end. And finally, there is Getariako Txakolina in Basque, Chacolí de Guetaria in Spanish, the oldest appellation located in Gipuzkoa, around the towns of Getaria, Zarautz and Aia. The total production from all these appellations is minuscule, making it difficult to try a wide variety of wines outside of Txacoli; however, it’s worth the chance if you get it. These wines are dry, effervescent and highly acidity, with a fabulous freshness and vibrancy that would add to any summer fare.

Additionally, let’s not forget about Patxaran! Patxaran in Euskara (the language of the Basque Country where Txacoli is located) means sloe berry or baso aran (wild plum), a name you might accurately associate with sloe gin. A small dark berry with red juice, sloe berries come from a blackthorn bush and is a relative of the plum, while Patxaran is a sloe-flavored liqueur most commonly savored in Navarra, the Basque Country and La Rioja.

Patxaran is made by soaking sloe berries in an anise-flavored spirit or arujo, with a few coffee beans and a vanilla pod for approximately 3 to 4 months, resulting in a light mahogany colored sweet liqueur, around 25-30% alcohol by volume. Traditionally, it is served chilled or on ice as a digestif (although I don’t suggest this as it tends to dilute the rich spice flavor).

As for food in Basque Country, what’s not to like? Seriously! Having been to Bilbao twice, and soon to visit San Sebastian, this area cooks up some of the best food in Spain. First and foremost, this is the land of pintxos, named after the toothpick that is used to keep the towering ingredients from falling off the slice of bread they’re attached to, as well as keeping track of the number of tapas you’ve happily consumed. Another name for a tapa with a toothpick is banderillas (the diminutive of bandera “flag”), in part because some of them resemble the technicolor spears used in bullfighting. Make sure to seek out: Txangurro (spider crab), Txipirones (baby squid) in their ink, Percebes (Gooseneck barnacles) – these buggers can give a good spray to the eye when opened, Idiazabal sheep’s cheese (heaven!) and basquaise, a Basque dish that often includes tomatoes and sweet or hot red peppers.

Now let’s check in with Bill Bennett, our correspondent writer covering the current stats of La Vuelta de Espana:

Previewing Stages 13 & 14 of the Vuelta a España

What a race so far. Igor Anton continues to impress with his mountain stage victory at Vallnord in Stage 11. Mark Cavendish finally gets on the board with a sprint victory in Stage 12 and increases his lead over Tyler Farrar in the points classification to 9. What are we going to see over the next two stages?

Stage 13: Rincón de Soto ? Burgos, Date: Friday, September 10, Distance: 196 km

Wine Pairing: Lopez de Heredia Tondonia 1989

The east-to-west Stage 13 course across the central plateau from Rincón de Soto to Burgos will have two category 3 climbs included in the rolling terrain. In 2008, Óscar Freire won a photo finish against Tom Boonen in downtown Burgos.

It’s quite likely that we’ll also have a field sprint this year, as the sprinters will not have another opportunity for six days (Stage 18) if they let a break get away. This course probably suits Óscar Freire even better than 2008 since the extra cat 3 climb may
eliminate sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Juan José Haedo who don’t climb as well as Freire. But, there should be time to catch back on since the last of the two cat 3 climbs crests 36 km from the finish on this 196 km stage.

By the way, the province of Burgos also hosts a five day stage race at the beginning of August called the Vuelta a Burgos which serves as preparation for Vuelta a Espana for many Spanish riders.

Stage 14: Burgos ? Peña Cabarga, Date: Saturday, September 11, Distance: 179 km

Wine Pairing: Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina 2007

On Saturday, the peloton travels from Burgos to the top of Peña Cabarga, forcing the riders to overcome several mountain passes along the way: Bocos (Category 3), Lunada (Category 2) and Caracol (Category 2). After these climbs, there should be enough time for the peloton to regroup going into the final climb to Peña Cabarga. The 6k climb rises 561 meters with an average pitch of 9.4%, with ramps as steep as 18%.

The finish is close to the Basque country. Look for Igor Anton, wearing the Basque colors of the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad, to be particularly motivated for victory. Is this the day Frank Schleck attacks to start whittling into Anton’s lead? Stay tuned.

Till next time,

Gabriella and Ryan Opaz

Also make sure you check out these articles as well:
The Grand Garnacha Tasting of Robert Parker – Wine Future Conference
The Ultimate Online Wine Guide for Visiting La Rioja: What To Drink, Where to Eat and What to Experience
Restaurante Asador La Chata – A Review of Our Keynote Dinner at The EWBC 2008
Vinotherapy (Wine Therapy): Taking the Romance of Wine to a Whole new Level
Rioja Grapes: The 7 Treasures that Make Rioja Wine Sing!
6 Alternative Ways to Enjoy a Rioja Wine (Note: not for those who fear heights!)
Some of the Food Culture of La Rioja (warning may cause salivation)
Dinner at Terete in Haro, La Rioja
Traditional Rioja! Modern Rioja! What does it Matter if it all Tastes Good?
What is the Flavor of Rioja?
Traditional versus Modern Rioja: Question Posed to Riojan Winemakers

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