Wine Tasting Guided by Pilar García-Granero Makes for a Festive and Illuminating Course Finale

Earlier this month we celebrated the completion of our USAC-BCulinary Club course with a sensational wine-tasting session guided by Pilar Garcia-Granero — wine expert, teacher, Director of the Escuela Navarra de Cata, former president of the Regulatory Board of the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) Navarra and technical coordinator of the Basque Culinary Center’s Máster en Sumillería y Enomarketing.


Pilar García-Granero presenting wine to the group

I think it’s safe to say that as a group, we were completely captivated by Pilar’s ability to verbalize the layers of flavor contained in our glasses. She encouraged us to recognize and classify our tasting sensations as she masterfully and elegantly led by example — swirling, smelling, swishing, sipping, savoring….


Learning to swirl, smell, swish, sip and savor wine with Pilar García-Granero

First we tasted my favorite beverage from this region: traditional Basque cider. Sagardoa (in Basque), or sidra (in Castillian Spanish), has a low alcohol content (4-6%) and is produced through the natural fermentation, with no added sugars or flavors, of the juices pressed from a variety of native apples.


Varieties of apples used to make traditional Basque cider, at the Basque Cider Museum – Sagardoetxea

Pilar explained that the apple varieties are selected to carefully balance the final product’s characteristic flavor profile – dry, tart, fresh, vaguely musty, gently fruity, with tones of apple and citrus, and ever so slightly tannin.


Our cider was produced by the cider house Zapiain in Astigarraga, a town at the heart of the Basque cider-making tradition and home to numerous traditional cider houses, or sagardotegia, as well as the fantastic Basque Cider Museum – Sagardoetxea.


Learning to make cider at the Sagardoetxea

Pilar showed us how to examine the cider visually in the bottle, observing its characteristic cloudiness and bits of natural sediment, as well as in the glass, noting the golden yellow tones, the opacity, the slight carbonation. She reminded us that if cider is left in the glass without being consumed in the proper “all-at-once” fashion, the color deepens as the cider oxidizes and loses its fresh flavor.

She demonstrated the distinctive cider pour (a thin stream from a height of at least 20 cm and up to a meter) into the appropriate glass (not a wine glass, but a tumbler, typically 12 cm tall and 9 cm wide across the mouth).

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Traditional Basque cider pour; photo from www.seaslugandtheturtle.blogspot

Pliar explained the history of the Txotx, the dramatic tasting ritual of the cider houses during the cider season. From January to April, when the previous year’s cider is ready to be consumed, cider is poured at intervals, when “Txotx!” is called, straight out of the barrels known as kupela.


Txotx! Photo by Jon Urbe,

Historically cider houses did not serve food, they simply opened their doors to buyers to offer tastings of cider before it was bottled. Buyers would bring their own food items to accompany the cider — walnuts and cheeses, simple salt cod dishes, and, if the cider house was equipped, large cuts of meat and fresh, whole fish to cook over a parrilla, or grill.


Idiazabal cheese, sweet quince paste and walnuts on a cider-house table; photo from

Eventually the cider houses recognized their opportunity — they conditioned their kitchens, built out their dining halls, and began to offer what is now the celebrated, traditional cider-house meal: a tender salt cod tortilla (omelette), salt cod with sweet green and red peppers and onions, or salt cod al pil pil, an enormous grilled txuletón (aged rib-eye steak) or a whole, grilled fish, and dessert of whole walnuts, Idiazabal cheese and quince paste.


Enormous steaks awaiting their turn on the grill at Petritegi; photo from

After the cider, we tasted a white txakoli (pronounced “cha-ko-li”) wine, a Getariako Txakolina, D.O., the most widely known type of txakoli.


Zac and Niko examining the txakoli

The majority of Getariako Txakolina is produced in the coastal towns of Getaria and Zarautz in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, and there are several vineyards scattered throughout the nearby mountains.

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La Ruta del Txakoli – The Route of Txakoli; click the image to link to an interactive map of Txakoli vineyards, presented by the Regulatory Board of the Getariako Txakolina Denominación de Origen

Pliar explained that here in Gipuzkoa, nearly all txakolis are made from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape, a white grape resulting in a crisp, tart, slightly sparkling wine with a pale greenish-yellow color and a moderate alcohol content (9.5-11.5%).


Hondarribi Zuri grapes; photo from

We learned that there is also a lesser-known red txakoli grape variety in Gipuzkoa, known as Hondarribi Beltza, from which a relatively tiny amount of wine is produced, and that in the Basque province of Bizkaia (Biscay in English), there is a type of txakoli produced from a mix of both red and white grapes. Txakoli wines are also produced on a small scale in the Basque province of Araba/Álava and in the province of Burgos.


Hondarribi Beltza grapes, photo from

People usually drink txakoli as an apéritif, before a meal, and often while taking part in a txikiteo (also known as a poteo) — the custom of going from bar to bar with friends, usually in the early evening, to drink small glasses of wine or cider (referred to as txikitos or potes), or small glasses of beer (zuritos), accompanied by small appetizers known as pintxos (in the Basque Country) or as tapas (throughout Spain).

Pilar pointed out that the aromas of our txakoli, immediately after being poured into the glass, were reminiscent of green apples, yet once the wine was agitated and aerated in the glass, the aromas expanded, evoking sweet, golden apples. This wine was a big hit with our group!


Mia, Brittany, Martiza and Simone examining the txakoli

Next we sampled a pair of Rioja wines made from Tempranillo grapes, the predominant grape of the Rioja region to the south of (and slightly overlapping with, in the province of Álava) the Basque Country.


Map of the Rioja wine regions; image from

Pilar talked about the four major Rioja wine styles (Rioja, Crianza, Rioja Reserva and Rioja Gran Reserva), their technical definitions and their overall characteristics. This Wine Folly piece also does a great job.


Rioja wine styles defined and average prices in US$; image from

First we sampled a young Rioja wine, characteristically aged under two years, with little or no time in oak barrels, and with a relatively high alcohol content of 13.5%.


Niko pouring himself a taste of Rioja wine

Thin, fresh and fruity, young Rioja wine is typically enjoyed as a pre-meal apéritif. Traditionally these wines were labelled as vino joven (young wine), though most present-day winemakers label them simply as Rioja.


Mia pouring herself a taste of Rioja wine

We moved on to a satistfying Crianza. The Spanish word crianza has several meanings: it can refer to the upbringing, nourishment and education of children, to the breeding, care and nourishment of animals, and to the aging and maturing of wines. While vinos jovenes, or young wines, are sometimes referred to as sin crianza, Crianza wines are by definition aged for a minimum of two years, including at least one year in oak barrels, and have an alcohol content of 13-14%.

In comparison to the Rioja we sampled, we found our Crianza to be much fuller bodied, ripe with tears, with deeper flavors of red berries, hints of clove, overtones of oak, and a slower finish.

Mia, Lauren, Brittany, Maritza, JaNon, Simone and Caroline…pleased with the Crianza!

After our guided tasting with Pilar, we continued our session by exploring how our wines and cider paired with the various components of our pica-pica spread: cured anchovies, olives stuffed with anchovies, guindillas de Ibarra, semi-cured Idiazabal sheep’s milk cheeses (smoked and unsmoked), Cabrales cheese (a rich blue cheese made from cow’s and sheep’s milks), raw local oak forest honeydulce de membrillo (sweet quince paste), bonito tuna with olive oil, walnuts and almonds, pa amb tomàquet.

Some stand-out, classic pairings we enjoyed: txakoli with anchovies and with bonito; Rioja and Crianza with our cheeses, cider with nuts, quince paste, Idiazabal cheese…and a bit of everything with everything!


Our pica-pica spread

To cap off our evening, students were awarded their certificates for completion of the course. Well done, everyone! Glasses raised to you all! Chin-chin! Zorionak!

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Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
Zorionak eta Urte Berri On!

Highlights from This Week’s Class – A Cephalopod Ode, the Pleasures of Peppers, Working with Heat and Time…

A productive night it was in our cozy kitchen in the BCulinary Club at the Basque Culinary Center. Our dishes — Riojan-style Potatoes with Chorizo and Pork Ribs, Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce with Piquillo Peppers, and Pears in Wine — were a comforting antidote to the day’s orange-alert level winds and rains.


Potatoes a-stewstewin’, pears a-poachpoachin’ and piquillos a-chupchupin’.

One of the night’s highlights was an impromptu performance of a sweet ditty about cephalopods. (Hopefully next week, when we prepare our Galician-style Octopus with Potatoes, we’ll catch a repeat performance on video!)

Speaking of cephalopods, who knew that the world just celebrated International Cephalopod Awareness Days? In a future post, Brittany will offer some insights about the biology and behaviour of these tremendous (and usually delicious) creatures, the most intelligent invertebrates on the planet!

And speaking of tremendous ocean creatures, soon we’ll also have a closer look at cod and cod fishing practices in the Basque Country and in other parts of the world, including some perspective from Zac, who fishes commercially with his brother out of (my home state of) Massachusetts!

In class this week, we had a chance to get better acquainted with two very special varieties of peppers ubiquitous in Basque cuisine – dried pimientos choriceros (central flavor elements of our Sukalki and last night’s Riojan-style Potatoes recipes)…

…and roasted pimientos del piquillo (that we poached in olive oil with garlic to make the garnish for our Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce).


Roasted piquillos ready to be poached in olive oil with garlic for our garnish.

Piquillo peppers are primarily grown in the Basque province of Navarra, where they have their own Designation of Origen (D.O.) as Piquillos de Lodosa. The are traditionally fire-roasted and peeled by hand. Here you can have a closer look at the process.

We compared the prepared, bottled flesh (“carne“) of rehydrated choricero peppers (tasty)… Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 11.33.47 PM …to the carne we removed ourselves from whole, rehydrated peppers (very tasty!).


JaNon meticulously extracting the goodness from our rehydrated peppers.

We made a hefty sofrito to get our potatoes started on the right path…


Sofriendo el sofrito.

…and we took advantage of our heavenly pork rib broth to round out the dish. (A few of us even slurped down the vegetables leftover from the broth! Not naming names….)


Zac and Niko carefully straining the broth into the potatoes.

We honed our paring skills, peeling pears for our dessert…


Painstakingly Preparing Pears for Poaching in Port and other Pleasing comPonents.

…and finally, as our night drew to a close and our appetites escalated, we prepared our Salt Cod in Pil Pil Sauce — a storied Basque dish whose preparation highlights one of my favourite insights about good cooking:

To cook well, one must not only be capable of a series of basic techniques (please check out Amanda Gold‘s great article, 10 Techniques Every Cook Should Know), but one must develop a deep understanding of what Harold McGee calls the invisible ingredient in every kitchen: HEAT. And, I would add, of the particular relationship between HEAT and TIME that applies to any given preparation.

(This is a topic I hope to explore in a future post. Memories of line cooking and kitchen multi-tasking, the little voices in my head [familiar to anyone who’s ever cooked professionally!] constantly chattering: “How hot is that?” “How long has that been in/on there?” “That’s too hot!” “That needs to come up to temperature!” “The pan must be smoking hot!”)

So what about our salt cod? All this to say, our cod was delicious, and our sauce was full of cod-garlic-cayene-olive oil flavor… DSC_0173 …but we did NOT successfully work the magic of creating a true Pil Pil sauce (a creamy emulsion derived from the protein-rich juice, or gelatin, that the cod exudes as it slowly poaches in warm oil), because the process, of course, is NOT magic, it’s SCIENCE, and, quite simply, the oil was too warm to properly emulsify our protein! Cook and learn. Learn and cook. We’ll try again, though. Elkarrekin. Cooking and learning together. And next time we won’t wait until we’re so hungry! Until then, On Egin!