The small txakoli vineyards in Spain’s Basque country are in the throes of a pre-harvest frenzy when we visit. But I am eager to learn about the txakoli (pronounced sha-ko-lee), a dry, effervescent white wine synonymous with the region. Usually served in thick, stumpy tumblers, the low alcohol-high acidity txakoli is a refreshing counterpoint to the seafood-dominated pintxos (tapas) served at pintxo bars.

I get lucky with the owners of Elkano, an artisanal winery in seaside Getaria, named after local son Juan Sebastián Elkano, who circumnavigated the earth first in the 16th century. Their wine, all bottled with his portrait on the label, is now going places.

The winery occupies the basement of the two-storeyed house of the owners. Luis Zimmerman greets us with a smile and halting English; his son Aritz, Elkano’s oenologist, translates for us. We are their first visitors from India, he says, as he narrates that Luis revived the family’s century-old winemaking tradition by planting the vineyard in 2001 and making the first wines in 2012. Now, the three of them—father, mother and son—run the winery, tend the 10-acre vineyard with the high trellis system (to beat disease and mildew, side effects of high humidity) and look after the packing, marketing and sale of the wine as well.

The turbot on the grill at the restaurant Elkana, in a wire mesh designed in-house.
The turbot on the grill at the restaurant Elkana, in a wire mesh designed in-house.

After the winery tour, standing in their simple tasting room with its stunning view of the vineyards and the misty, grey Cantabrian Sea in the distance, Aritz explains that they were able to receive us because their harvest is still some time away. “Elkano is at a higher altitude than other vineyards, so we harvest later," he says.

Meanwhile, his mother has made some delicious pintxos to go with our glasses of txakoli. The Gilda—a tangy pimiento-olive-anchovy tapas named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the movie of the same name—and the salt-cured anchovies in extra virgin olive oil are perfect for the crisp minerality of the wine.

We chat, and Aritz confides that the txakoli’s typical high pouring action in the pintxo bars is just flashy marketing. “It’s done to increase the bubbles but, really, txakoli tastes so much better in the copa," he adds, indicating the stemmed tulips in our hands.

The Zimmermans are expecting friends and family to help with the harvest. “We hope the harvest will be good, we have standards to maintain. Already, The Sunday Times has named us Basque’s best txakoli and Arzak (a Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastián), rated the eighth best in the world (by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants magazine) is keeping our wines," Aritz says with pride.

Our lunch, however, is not at Arzak or any starred establishment, though San Sebastián boasts of the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre in the world, after Tokyo. We have a booking at a family run seafood restaurant in Getaria, also, coincidentally, called Elkano (on Herrerieta, 2). Despite having no awards or stars, it counts as fans chefs like Daniel Boulud, David Chang and Thomas Keller.

The owner-chef, Aitor Arregui, the second generation of his family at the restaurant, helps us choose from the deliberately sparse menu. “I buy the fish myself every morning," he says, recommending their signature turbot. It comes hot from the charcoal grill, deboned but whole, pale side up with a lick of butter, apple cider vinegar and salt. Heaven.

Then comes the Basque speciality kokotxas (pronounced co-co-cha, jowls of the hake fish), done in three different styles. Arregui suggests we swallow them (like oysters), so as not to release the gelatinous centre. The feeling is smooth and velvety. Finally comes the delicate, baked spider crab, sweet pink flesh yielding to our crab crackers. Our white Rioja, Muga 2013, has enough backbone to stand up to the variety of seafood on the table.

Satiated, we skip the restaurant’s special desserts: torrija, a Spanish-style bread pudding, and helado de queso, ice cream made of a soft local cheese. Besides the grilled hake, grouper, sea bass and elvers (baby eels, a seasonal Donostian speciality), the restaurant also serves mackerel eggs and baby shrimp a la plancha (grilled in a metal mesh)—enough to tempt us into making plans for the spawning season.

The gastronomic journey rolls on to Haro, the wine capital of La Rioja. At the venerable Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España or CVNE (pronounced coo-nay) winery, the friendly communications manager, Marta Echavarri, insists we visit Venta Moncalvillo (on Carretera Medrano, 6, Daroca De Rioja), the Michelin one-star restaurant run by two brothers: Ignacio Echapresto is the decorated chef and Carlos, the award-winning sommelier. “It is a tiny village, Daroca de Rioja, with just 30 residents!" says Echavarri, as she makes a booking for us.

The village is fast asleep by the time we reach the simple villa housing Venta Moncalvillo. I’m told the Echaprestos opened it as a village eatery but, over time, the restaurant developed a formidable reputation for fine food and wine. Ignacio, a self-taught chef, has several awards and recognitions to his name besides the Michelin star. Ditto the quiet Carlos, who won the National Award for Best Sommelier in Spain for 2013. He enquires about our dining preferences, suggests we match wines to the food, and beams when we tell him we prefer a Spanish selection.

We decide on the classic tasting menu: eight beautiful, playful courses made with seasonal vegetables and fresh seafood. The food is outstanding and the wines superlative: two red Riojas and an excellent white. Ignacio uses produce from their own garden, as well as game, wild mushrooms and seafood. The courses—from the foie apple flower to the red tuna carpaccio and the baby squid, to the lamb fillet with spicy aubergine and sweetbreads—are works of art on the plate and the palate. The hake barbells or kokotxas make their appearance again and, this time, we handle them like pros.

Carlos appears to discuss the wines with each course, offering little nuggets of information on each. “This isn’t yet on our wine list, but I think it will go well with the lamb," he says, opening a bottle of Ad Libitum Maturana Tinta, an organic artisanal wine from Rioja Alta made from a minor Spanish grape that is witnessing renewed popularity.

After dinner, Carlos takes me to his much awarded cellar, where every country and region is represented, but Rioja occupies pride of place. These are unusual selections, chosen to offset his brother’s food. “The right wine can enhance a dish to perfection. I believe there are no hard and fast rules on matching food and wine because it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste," he says.

There can be no better sign-off for a place as individualistic as Daroca de Rioja, the smallest village in the world with a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Best of the lot

San Sebastián

Have a bite and a drink at each of the tiny ‘pintxo’ bars in Parte Vieja (Old Town). There is an honour system for billing. Go early to get the best ‘pintxos’ and drink ‘sidra’ (local Basque cider) or ‘txakoli’.

u Goiz Argi for seafood a la plancha. Calle de Fermín Calbetón 4.

uLa Cuchara de San Telmo for ‘bacalao’. Calle 31 de Agosto, 28.

uBorda Berri for pork ribs, ‘idiazábal’ and ‘hongos’ (sheep milk cheese and wild mushroom ‘orzo’) risotto, ‘polpo’ (octopus) and veal cheeks. Fermin Calbetón, 12.

uLa Viña for light, airy Basque-style cheesecake. Calle 31 de Agosto, 3.

Haro, La Rioja

uRestaurante Terete for roast lamb made in a wood-fired oven, ‘morcilla’ (blood sausage) and fresh tomato salad. Calle Lucrecia Arana, 17.

u La Vieja Bodega for Crujiente De Cochinillo (roast crispy suckling pig), Chuletas Riojana (grilled lamb chops over vine leaves) and ‘Menestra De Verduras De Temporada’ (seasonal fresh vegetables, including the region’s tender white asparagus). Avenida de La Rioja 17, Casalarreina.

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