All About Basque Country Wine and Cheese
The Basque region occupies parts of France and Spain but to the people who occupy this unique region it’s neither and instead an officially Autonomous Community called “Euskadi”.
Sitting on the extreme western end of Spain’s border with France, where the Pyrenees Mountains lie with hundreds of miles of coastline on the Bay of Biscay; the Basque people are proudly independent, having their own culture, unique language and own cuisine.
The language spoken in Basque country is called Euskera, and it has no links with any other language being used before all other Indo-European languages! There are about 2.5 million people in this region, and 30% of them speak the language. Basques throughout history have been known as independent, strong defenders of their land, fighting off major empires like the Romans, Vikings, and Muslims. They also have their own unique cheese, wine, and culinary traditions.
An interesting part of Basque history lies in cheesemaking – primarily with sheep’s milk from the plethora of sheep in the area. Production of the region’s famous Ossau Iraty cheese dates back more than 4,000 years, giving it an A.O.C status in France. It’s one of two sheep milk cheeses to receive this honor (the other being imported Roquefort). Ossau Iraty cheese is usually aged for three months, creating a very light color and very smooth but lingering flavors. It’s also a very diverse wine cheese and pairs deliciously with everything from the strongest, most intense reds, or pair lovely with a nice sparkling white.
There’s also the iconic Idiazabal cheese. This rich and smoky cheese is made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk and named after the town of Idiazabal in Gipuzkoa. It’s often paired with quince jam for snacking.
P’tit Basque is a 100% pure sheep’s milk cheese produced in France’s Basque region in the Pyrenees Mountains. The semi-hard cheese is aged for a minimum of 70 days, during which it develops a basket-weave pattern similar to Spain’s famous Manchego cheese but with a milder and more delicate flavor. It has a distinctive aroma of sheep’s milk, and a smooth, sweet flavor with a nutty finish.
Wine-making also has a rich history in the Basque region. Like many parts of Spain, vineyards in the Basque Country have been tended since the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Roman Empire. The wines produced in the region are light, fresh white and red wines, since Basques have been fishermen for thousands of years, and there are many traditional fish and seafood dishes in the Basque cuisine. Here are two primary wines from the region:
This area is a sub-area of the famous Rioja wine region and accounts for about 21% of the area of the Rioja Qualified DO. An unusual part of the wine-making process of the area is carbonic maceration where the grapes are not de-stemmed or crushed before fermenting. In Rioja Alavesa, the grapes are placed into large open vats with stems on. The yeast that is naturally present on the surface of the grape starts the fermentation. This carbonic maceration process is said to produce Rioja wine that is “soft and fruity.”
Txakoli, or in Spanish “chacolí” is a wine that’s been produced for centuries near the Basque coast. Vineyards in this area are located above the sea in a mild coastal climate. Chacolí is a young white wine that’s light, fruity and slightly sparkling, with a green tint, high acidity, and low alcohol content. It is usually made from the Hondarribi Zuri grape. Since it is a light white wine, it is often paired with fresh fish and seafood from the region.
The Basque Country itself may be small, but its global culinary reputation is enormous.
It has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world and a multitude of famous chefs. Basque cuisine includes everything from tuna stew and salt cod to burnt cheesecake and sparkling cider. It’s a unique and eclectic cuisine—but one thing that all Basque dishes have in common is locally sourced ingredients featuring a plethora of fresh seafood as well as their famous cured ham, Jambon de Bayonne (which comes from the Bayonne region of Basque France).
With it’s unique and well-preserved culture, special cheeses and wines, and both French and Spanish culinary influences the Basque region should be on every foodie’s travel list!