Euskal mendi itzulera agurra,
Last summer, I introduced the mouthwatering mountainous Michelin-starred Basque delight known as Urkizahar Txakoli, Luisja Oregi’s one man labor of love, to a thunderous response; undoubtedly, the narrative of how things unfolded coupled with my impressions was a “something special” kind of a discovery. Once folks got the wine in their hands, I heard lots of feedback, both thrills and chills…..it seems that the 2016 with its unmistakable purity and nearly 12g/L of acidity was a thrill to most people, and shrill to a small handful. I would say that on a roughly 10:1 basis, I had people sharing my enthusiasm, if not quite as wordily so…. ;0 Many folks asked me for refills, but I was cleaned out before the parcel had even arrived. So I have been keeping tabs on Luisja’s progress on the 2017 iteration, which has just now been bottled…..
For the big picture intro, please feel free to re-read last year’s offer, included here below. Jumping to the context of the 2017, Luisja battled some early season mildew pressure, but once he got into the mid/late summer, things were in cruise control, with a wonderfully moderate and clear late season that provided impeccably clean and full clusters, with wonderfully balanced sugar/acidity levels, and solid yields. Relative to the more extreme character of the 2016’s 12g/L acidity, the 2017 checks in at a still mouthwatering but more integrated 9g/L acidity, the fruit and acidity better harmonized, accordingly to Luisja. He feels that it may be the finest vintage he has yet produced, and he is a modest and humble fellow indeed……
What follows is an offering of the newly bottled 2017, as well as a smidge of the remaining 2016 that Luisja has at the winery. Between the two vintages, one more moderate and one more extreme, you should be able to cover your summertime sippin’ needs for all things fresh fish/salads meets salty perfumed delight. Having met Luisja and his wines is undoubtedly one of the vinous highlights of my year, as the something special that he has goin’ on here is self-evident, and a remarkable value on the world stage. I don’t think that you can reference any wine that has so many Michelin starred placements at tariffs like this……and so…..
ORIGINAL OFFERING FROM LAST SUMMER:
After a ten day spell soaking in the diversity of all things Pyrénées/Basque, from rugged mountain majesty to azure seaside paradise, I cannot overstate how breathtaking and fascinating the landscape, cuisine, and nuanced cultural legacies are. Today’s intro is a classic example of yellow-brick-road kismet, the kind of natural unfolding that feels, well, more than special….
Amber and I chose to stay one night in the small seaside fishing town of Getaria, sort of the traditional winemaking heart of Basque country that produces nearly exclusively the low octane, high acid, intensely salty/mineral, and floral white wine of the region: Txakoli (chock-o-lee). I have always adored txakoli for its sense of mouth watering refreshment, most often with a smidge of gas/bubbles still in the wine due to its young and fast fermentation. In its undeniable salty/mineral character, the stuff indelibly tastes like it was born near the ocean, accompanying with addictive, crushable ease everything imaginable fish/pinxos (pinch-ohs, the basque style of tapas). When my dear friend Angel Loureiro, a native of neighboring Galicia and Princeton University professor of Spanish culture, caught wind that we were in Getaria, he told me: go to the Elkano restaurant, get the Rodaballo. The man has impeccable taste; I got his email maybe thirty minutes before we were headed out to get dinner. I didn’t even look into a single detail, we just went….
Well, it seems that Elkano is a gastronomic mecca, a one-star Michelin institution and a temple to grilled fish. One of their most celebrated dishes: the flat Rodaballo fish, aka Turbot. As we settled in, realizing that this place is sort of a “big deal”, a mild mannered middle aged man came to our table to ask if we would care for some wine or food recommendations. I told him that we were clueless, but that we wanted to try the Rodaballo. I also told him that we are American wine importers, in particular looking for exceptional/distinct examples of txakoli. I mentioned that I was familiar with a handful of the region’s stars, like the pioneering Etxaniz and newer wave Ameztoi. An enthusiastic glimmer came to his eye, and he unhesitatingly suggested that we just order just the fish, and nothing else, using the phrase “clean”. He insisted that we eat the same fresh anchovies that the fish itself had been eating during this its prime fattening season, to better understand the life cycle and relationships of the Rodaballo to this place. He also insisted that he be the one who cleans and presents the Rodaballo to us. As to which wine, he suggested an exciting “up-and-coming” producer located high in the mountainous interior where three valleys intersect. Its name is Urkizahar…..
From the first sip, the wine was simply outstanding. It had a purity and precision that were beyond self evident. It was curiously labelled as a “txakoli ekologikoa”, putting its organic origins at the forefront. At its core, it had a purity and intensity of that signature saline minerality that was a mouthwatering, rockhead delight. I repeatedly found myself with eyes bulging out of my head, as its finish was so persistently mineral. When the gentleman who had recommended it came back to the table, we told him that we loved the wine, at which point he insisted that we try the Etxaniz and one other revered producer alongside it, offering us a glass of each on the house. Then, the fish arrived……
With meticulous and effortless precision, he at once separated the various pieces of the fish, explaining how each morsel of its flesh is quite distinct, depending on which side it is taken from and the proximity to the bones and organs. One could sense how much joy and satisfaction he took in illustrating the differences even though he has likely done this hundreds of times, serving up a tiny piece of the rich, gelatinous cheek versus the earthier belly meat adjacent to the stomach. He whisked up the juices of the fish, emulsifying the natural bone gelatin into a sauce, that was deep and rich in flavor. He wholeheartedly encouraged us to get up in there, to really taste every bit, which we did….with abandon….Whereas the top filet portion is both delicious and the easiest work, we really were enjoying picking out bits of the head which were packed with flavor. We chuckled when an American couple next to us squeamishly passed on getting messy with the interesting bits whilst we shamelessly sucked on cheek bones and bits around the spine. To do less would be a disrespect both to the fish and our teacher…..With the fish, we repeatedly found ourselves reaching for the Urkizahar over the other wines, as it had a sense of depth, grip, and minerality that continued to refresh and appetize, whereas the others, while being very well made, just weren’t as dynamic. We finsihed the bottle of Urkizahar, the single glasses of the other wines were not. It was a tremendous, tremendous meal, one that I certainly will never forget……
Most pleasantly plumped and satiated, our host came by one final time to inquire as to our satisfaction. We thanked him profusely for all things wine and Rodaballo, as well as his self evident passion and deep knowledge. He only introduced himself when I finally inquired: his name is Aitor Arregui. I later learned that he is the owner of Elkano, the restaurant that his father had created. It is very clear that he is a proud and deeply reverential ambassador for the traditions of this place, one who is clearly devoted to and living for the celebration of this unique cultural heritage and Natural bounty. What a tremendous man!!!!
Before settling in to bed, I quickly looked up Urkizahar on the interwebs and sent a little email introducing myself, including my contact information. The next morning, bright and early, my cell phone rang. It was someone from Urkizahar. The gentleman on the phone invited us to come up and visit. I told him that I need to check with the queen first (la reina), as I didn’t want to dominate our vacation time with yet more wine stuff. Amber said aok, no doubt in part because the wine we had the evening prior was unforgettably so damn good….and away we went….
Things get pretty rugged, pretty fast once you get outside of the small towns/cities in Euskal Herria (this is the Euskal phrase for the French “Pays Basque” or the Spanish “Pais Vasco”, in their own language, one that curiously has no latin/germanic root whatsoever, nor any tie to neighboring languages). Winding along river valley floors with the steep, forested ravines towering above us, we soon began ascending on winding switchback roads just outside of Azpeitia, until we arrived at a small clearing in the forest. A few hundred meters down a small dirt road, we came upon an old house. No one responded at the door, so I poked around back and saw a man busy turning the soil in his vegetable garden. I shouted hello, and, with a limp in his stride, was greeted by Luisja Oregi, the one man band that is responsible for Urkizahar, meaning “Old Birch” in Euskera.
It was a sunny day, and the view from some 1400 feet above the valley floor was stunning, the surrounding mountains and large reservoir below was something to make you say wow and then some. I told him about our experience at Elkano, and he just knew: it was Aitor….He explained that he and his family have lived here since they renovated the old farmhouse in 2002. Both the farm and house had been abandoned for nearly 40 years, as the rugged agricultural mountain life demanded too much, with the overwhelming majority of the older generation taking better paying work in the industrial jobs below. For Luisja, it was exactly the opposite. After working for most of his life in the automobile parts manufacturing and sales industry, he felt that he needed a change. He darkly quipped that he needed to take off the businessman tie before he hung himself by it….! One day in 2007, he and his father were strolling around the farm when his father nonchalantly suggested that it would be very nice to grow some txakoli here, something that once existed in the area but that no one does anymore as the mountain terrain and climate is too demanding. Something about that conversation really stuck to him, until he decided in 2008 to indeed plant Hondaribbi Zuri, the native Euskal grape variety that is responsible for the vast majority of txakoli production. I could sense the palpable, bittersweet feeling in Luisja when he tells me that his father passed in 2009, happy to have seen his son embark on a full circle rediscovery of sorts…..
In total, the wine estate is just 2.5 hectares, divided into two adjoining parcels at 350m and 450m, farmed organically in its entirety by Luisja, solo. His is both the smallest and highest elevation production of the entire appellation Getariako Txakolina; he pushed incessantly to be able to be included in the appellation, refusing to take no for an answer, and was finally rewarded for his hard headedness. These mountains are where the Cantabrian and Pyrénées mountains meet, the collision point of the Iberian and European tectonic plates. The soil makeup here is a wild and complex blend of principally limestone, then hard sandstone, shale, all kinds of multicolored volcanic slate, shiny metamorphic lherzolites, among others….Luisja said that it changes throughout the vineyard, even within such a small surface area. Wild….He uses sea water, cow’s milk, and tinctures of sage and other plants as vineyard treatments, and has a genuine and deep desire to respect and understand the balance. There are incredibly few organic producers of txakoli, and most people think that he is crazy for attempting to do so; nonetheless, with vigilant hard work, the results in the bottle are impossible to argue with. He showed us his brand new winery facility that was completed last year, built into the hillside in streamlined fashion, with its first vintage being the 2016, the wine we had tried at Elkano. Before that, his first bottled vintage was 2012, with grapes trucked down hill to a portion of a rented facility near Getaria. Luisja says that it is soooo nice to finally be able to do everything on the property, gravity fed, not a forty minute truck/car ride away. When I asked about the limp in his stride, he told me that he had slightly torn his meniscus but didn’t have time to get it taken care of, too much work to do….he says that he wishes he was ten years younger, now 54, as he is feeling the creaks in the machine….
Seated at the kitchen table for some tuna, bread, and a glass of txakoli, he told us the story of the first time that he took his bottled wine to San Sebastian, aka Donostia in Euskera, to see if restaurants would want to work with it. He went straight for the top: the three star Michelin Restaurante Arzak. He poured the wine for chef Juan Mari Arzak and the sommelier and asked them their honest opinion; he wanted to know exactly where he stood, no matter how painful it may be….a few minutes later, they asked, “Whatever you brought with you today in your truck, we will take it all…..”. Luisja recalls the vivid memory of driving away from Donostia that day, tears streaming down his face, his uncertainty validated in most dramatic fashion that his dream (and that of his father), for which he is risking and giving everything that he has, is working…..The list did not (and will not) stop there, as many of the finest restaurants in Bilbao, Donostia, and Getaria continue to recognize just how profound what he is doing is, including some fourteen! Michelin starred restaurants, including the three star and “one of the 10 best restaurants in the world” Asador Etxebarri.
He also shared a story about his friendship with Aitor. After presenting the wines to the staff at Elkano, Aitor insisted on bringing Elkano to Luisja’s place, rather than the other way around…They took an entire mobile kitchen/grill set up to the Urkizahar farm, and grilled up a feast in celebration of this place and Luisja’s project, a celebration of their shared passion for Euskal culture and gastronomy. Luisja shared the exact same sentiment that I had briefly sensed, that Aitor LIVES his job, feels it with every bit of passion and reverence for Euskal tradition and Nature, and takes imperitive and tremendous joy in sharing that with others. Birds of a feather, flocking together….
By this point, my heart was ready to burst, and my intuition alarm bells had been going off non-stop: I have found another kindred spirit. Luisja liked what he sensed as well, and so we agreed: we shall be partners. Whilst we could have carried on for what feels like forever, i’m sure, with a few kisses, thanks, and well wishes, we were on our way. As we pulled away, I remarked to Amber how moved I was to meet Luisja and see the “old birch” farm on its perch of mountain majesty, an incredible and inspiring undertaking. All of this from pure chance, each step in the road unfolding before us, like gifted pearls on a string……..special, right? ;0
2017 Urkizahar Txakolina Ekologikoa – Luisja tells me that this may be the finest vintage he has yet produced, as the overall harmonized fruit/acidity is seamless, with the same telltale purity that he works so hard to achieve. When he tells me that, I have every reason to believe him…..if higher acidity salty floral refreshment is your cup of tea, this is one to load up on, every year…..this is certain to become an unlikely cult wine darling of sorts, à la Collestefano….
2016 Urkizahar Txakolina Ekologikoa – And this is it. From a cooler year of solid yields, a grand total of 650 cases were made. For fans of higher acidity, dry, perfumey, saline/mineral wines, you will adore this. If you enjoy Chablis, dry Riesling, leaner/mineral white Burgundy, very noble examples of trebbiano, are a fan of Collestefano Verdicchio, or are one of those folks who actually know what txakoli is, get all that you can justify and thank me later. This is what I would call a “purist’s” example, perhaps the finest that I have ever tasted, hands down……BRAVO LUISJA!!!
This is without a doubt one of the longest pieces i’ve ever written, all for a single wine…..when the inspiration is there, I gotta heed the call!! Luisja is just getting started….I have a feeling that the trajectory here will only continue to astound and thrill wine lovers as he continues on his road….
CHEERS TO LUISJA AND HIS FAMILY!! TO HIS INCREDIBLE LABOR OF LOVE!!! TO THE INIMITABLE BEAUTY OF THE EUSKAL HERRIA!!!