The classic “summer white wine,” no matter where it’s from, is always described as crisp, light, zippy, and refreshing. What happens to the wine if you turn up the dials on crispness, lightness, and zip to an extreme level? You get Txakoli and Vinho Verde, wines for this era of extra-hot summers, almost too strident to drink.
At least that’s what my sister said, as she pushed away the glass of Txakoli I had poured her. “It makes my teeth hurt,” she complained. She said the same about the other wine we were tasting, a Vinho Verde, and went to open a bottle of something more tolerable, a Pinot Gris. I could understand where she was coming from. The first two wines are bright, acerbic types, and not everybody enjoys their sardonic, cutting wit. With concentrated acidity and tart green flavors, they’re almost like little paper cuts to the unprepared tongue. They’re not summery in the sense of a lazy afternoon next to the pool, but rather bracing in their clarity like a squeeze of lemon or a dip in a cold sea.
Both these whites hail from the Iberian Peninsula. Txakoli (pronounced CHA-co-lee) is from the Basque Country in northern Spain, while Vinho Verde is grown on the northwest coast of Portugal. The irony is that Spain and Portugal have achieved worldwide fame not for light, lacerating whites but for the opposite: big, over-the-top reds. Portugal has its famous sweet red wine, port, and Spain has the modern, oaky, concentrated dry reds from Toro, Ribera del Duero, and Rioja. The fact that both countries also produce the world’s lightest and driest whites is probably a testament to the inherent logic of gastronomy: The wines from a certain place tend to go with the dominant cuisine. Both Txakoli and Vinho Verde come from Atlantic coasts where they obviously evolved over time to go with the regional specialty: fresh seafood.
Txakoli is made predominantly from an indigenous Basque grape with the similarly exotic name of Hondarribi Zuri. Vinho Verde is made from a collection of grapes, including Alvarinho (the same grape as Spain’s Albariño), Loureiro, and Trajadura. Both regions are cool and coastal, receiving a great deal of rain with taciturn winters and springs. These grapes are harvested at a state of low (or perhaps even pre-) ripeness. The wines are bottled right after the completion of fermentation in stainless steel tanks, when the wines are dry but while there is still a touch of carbon dioxide suspended in the solution. Captured in the bottle, this CO2 gives the wines their characteristic spritz upon being poured. Both are low in alcohol, meaning they can be gulped with near abandon during daylight hours.
Of course there are differences. Vinho verde actually means “green wine,” and it often has a greenish tint and that slightly bitter bite of green plants as well as hints of lime rind and green apples. Txakoli has a faint straw color and is often characterized by a mouth-watering taste of lemon or grapefruit and unripe Anjou pear.
I agree with my sister that the wines are not necessarily the most pleasurable to drink by themselves. They are not deeply flavored and are rarely complex or round. But their acidity, their lightness, and their spritz make them some of the world’s friendliest food wines, especially for dishes that can be difficult to pair with more conventional varieties. For instance, I like my Caesar salads garlicky, but garlic’s sharpness clashes with most wines. Not so with Txakoli or Vinho Verde. The same goes for bitter vegetables like mustard greens, kale, or watercress. And, of course, seafood.
Iberian whites can be more mineral than the ocean water in a freshly shucked oyster. In fact, one wine retail guy I know describes his favorite Txakoli (called Txakoli Ameztoi) as “liquid oyster shell.” But the wines go equally well with prawns, crab, clams, or anything aquatic. And for me that’s the essence of good summer eating: food as light and crisp as a July dawn and wine as refreshing as a cold shower.