Counterfeit Chacolí in Spanish Basque Country

by mary on February 13, 2009

A counterfeit Chacolí called EtxekoChacolí or Txakolí is the wine produced in three wine appellations in Spanish Basque Country.  It is a slightly sparkling light wine made in all three colors that is commonly served in Basque bars with tapas and pintxos.  It is very similar in style to Portugal’s Vinho Verde.  White Chacolí is the norm and it is generally served with a special spout attached to the bottle high above the glasses…splashing it vigourously encourages the fizzy carbonic to come out.   It is meant to be a light, fresh and fruity wine that refreshes the palate between all the varied pintxos you might eat….the best wines fit that bill perfectly…the worst are bland and bitingly acidic.   I recently saw in a Spanish TV report that over 80% of the Chacolí served in Basque bars is fake…in other words, not from the wine appellation, but rather a table wine made in the style of Chacolí with inferior grape varieties.   I decided to investigate the last time we were in Basque country and sure enough most of the time I was served a vino de mesa most of the time when I ordered Chacolí.  Generally you don’t get your hands on the bottles as it usually served behind the bar by the glass, but in the picture you can see a bottle of a fake one we were served.  The real rip off is that these wines are served at Chacolí prices, 8-10€ a bottle versus their real price value, which would be well below 5€.   So be wary of what you’re being served while enjoying the tapas in San Sebastian…ask for appellation Chacolí (Denominacion in Spain).  Read on for more information on Chacolí and its counterfeit version.

There are three Chacolí appellations or denominaciones, Chacolí de Viszcaya, Chacolí de Guetaría and Chacolí de Álava.  Álava is tiny and rarely seen, while the largest and most famous locally is probably Guetariá.  Viscaya still has a larger percentage of inferior grapes planted and quality can vary tremendously.  The overall production is very small…less than 400 hectares total under vine.  Obviously this contributes to the abundance of counterfeiting as well as to the fact that Chacolí is very hard to find outside of the area.  It is becoming trendier in Spain though and is starting to appear on restaurant wine lists in wine stores.  My fervent wish is that Chacolí eventually reaches the beach resorts and replaces the ubiquitous Viña Sol and Barbadillo that are so often our only choices in white wine. 

There is a lot of thin, acidic Chacolí and the counterfeits are invariably in that style…though occasionally I taste a counterfeit that is bland and surprisingly lacking acidity.  This is a very cool (for Spain) and rainy climate and cultivating vines and avoiding rains at harvest can be tricky.  Many grapes are harvested unripe to avoid rain and this leads to the inferior quality of so many wines. 

Lately some Txakoli wineries, such as Itsasmendi, have been making more substantial, “serious” styles, including aging over lees, barrel-fermented and even a late-harvest wine.  There are some really interesting wines there…I’ve served them blind to Spanish groups and you would never guess they were Chacolí.  They are also great value as they sell for less than 10€.  Luckily Itsasmendi still also makes the more traditional style of spritzy Txakoli that goes so well with Basque pintxos.   Even among the appellation wines, there are far too many that are inferior in quality.  Prices for regular Chacolí generally range from 3-10€ a bottle retail.

The best grape varieties in the region are the indigenous ones….the white grape Hondarribi Zuri and the black grape Hondarribi Beltza, and most of the top wines are made exclusively from these two.  The lesser appellation versions and the fakes are usually made from Folle Blance, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng.  Traditionally fermented in large oak vats, most wines today are fermented in stainless steel.  Care is taken to preserve the small amount of CO2 that gives it its fizz.  You can drink a lot of Chacolí as the average alcohol content is 10.5%.
 

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth Olson Porter January 25, 2013 at 7:14 pm

We are going to the Basque region in March. How can we guarantee we get the real thing?

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mary January 26, 2013 at 6:15 am

Hi Elizabeth! That’s awesome that you are going to Basque country…it’s such a beautiful place and the food is so wonderful!
Unfortunately, you will mostly be drinking Txacoli by the glass in tapas bars so it’s hard to know who the producer is. But honestly I wouldn’t worry about it. Even the real stuff is mostly pretty ordinary. Think of it as a light, great, refreshing accompaniment for the tapas. You can also try the beer, cider or some red wine, but Txacoli has always been my favorite! In a typical Basque tapas route, you are only having one or two small “chiquitos” of Txacoli with your pintxos in each bar before moving on to the next, so you get to try a lot of different ones!
There are a few good producers but its rare to see their wines in the tapas bars. Txomin Etxaniz is a larger producer and you may see there wines by the bottle around. It’s pretty good. My favorite producer is Itsasmendi.
I hope you are going to San Sebastian as well as Bilbao and plan on getting out there for lots of tapas. There are so many of Spain’s top restaurants in Basque country, but the tapas or pintxo culture is so much more a part of everyday Basque life.
Keep an eye out on the blog…I plan to do an article on my favorite tapas places in St Sebastian, including a couple of places that have very decent wine!
I hope you have a great time and I’d love to hear about your Txacoli adventures!

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Elizabeth Porter January 26, 2013 at 6:44 pm

We are driving from Madrid, stopping in Vitoria and spending 3 nights in San Sebastian. Then we are moving on to Bayonne and St Jean de Luz, France. We will circle back to Madrid stopping in Pamplona for a night. It will be a 6 night trip. Very excited!

Best part about it is…visiting my friend who lives in Madrid and hanging out with her sister and my best friend from Chicago and her 16 year old daughter. Road Trip Baby! lol

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mary January 28, 2013 at 6:18 pm

That sounds like an awesome road trip! So many great towns…french Basque country is great too! So different but with that underlying Basque culture. The best part is visiting your friend in Madrid! Love Basque country but Madrid is home to me…you will love it! Especially with someone who lives there and knows it! Que evidia! Have to get back again soon…

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Elizabeth Olson Porter January 28, 2013 at 9:47 pm

This will be my 4th trip to Madrid to see her. It has become an annual trip, lol I have been taking advantage! Each time I go, I get a new layer. But hopefully I will not be able to go back next year, my husband and I are trying to have a baby. I have to get as much out of this trip as I can!

Patricia August 22, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Great article! I love to keep learning more about txakoli and I thank you for it. Not so long ago I was able to enjoy some really nice txakoli in Getaria, I leave you here a link with my blog post about it:

http://www.euskoguide.com/blog/2013/08/txakoli-the-unknown-basque-white-wine/

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mary August 23, 2013 at 12:03 am

Hi Patricia! Thanks for your comment…love your article! The pictures are beautiful…that grilled fish had my mouth watering. Looks like that was at ElKano…I love that place!
The article is now pretty old and I keep meaning to do another one on Txakoli…it’s on my long list! Txakolis are improving so much every year…we can now find quite a few here in the US…and not just the ubiquitous Txomin Etxaniz.
Great website…like the list of restaurants organized by Michelin star…very cool. I’ll keep checking the blog out.
Cheers!

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mary January 30, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Sounds like you know Madrid pretty well…it’s awesome to have such a great friend to take advantage of! Better get all the road trips in now….you will have your hands full soon…

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