Basque Country for wine lovers

Journalist Yolanda Ortiz de Arri guides us round northern Spain. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

We are spoiled for good food in Basque Country. From the casual pintxo bars to the two dozen Michelin-starred restaurants or the sociedades gastronómicas (members-only social clubs whose existence revolves around food), eating well is our number one national sport, well above football or pelota.

And what about wine? Fine dining spots like Elkano [reviewed here by Nick in 2011] or Etxebarri of course have excellent wine lists and fancy glassware. In more modest bars or restaurants, drinking decent wine is easy – after all, the three Txakoli appellations and Rioja Alavesa are within our borders – but finding those that really cater for us wine lovers is a little harder.

This list aims to provide readers with a tour of places across the Basque Country that care as much for food as they do for wine. The journey starts in Bilbao moving on to Rioja Alavesa through little-known towns and villages inland and ends in San Sebastián. Enjoy!

Bilbao Txinpum

Txinpum (Bilbao)

Located opposite La Ribera market, on the banks of the river Nervión in Bilbao, this wine bar is owned by Mina, the Michelin-starred restaurant next door.

As well as a few wines by the glass, Txinpum stocks a small but diverse selection of bottles ranging from sherry and Rioja to little-known glou-glou wines from Beaujolais or Languedoc. Try to get hold of one of the tables outside the bar with views of the river and the market and enjoy delicious gildas (a popular pintxo with olives, green peppers and pickled anchovies) and sandwiches like the heavenly aubergine marinated with olive oil prepared by Julen Bergantiños, the chef and sommelier with experience at Mina and Celler de Can Roca, among others.

Walk: 20 minutes

Cork (Bilbao)

There's always something new, interesting or different to drink at Cork, a sort of urban paradise for wine geeks. From the new wave of white unfortified wines from the Sherry triangle to new styles of local Txakoli or the coolest vignerons from the Loire, owner Jonathan Hernando always has a wide variety of bottles ready to open and serve by the glass with his Coravin.

It’s a small place with no tables, a counter and a few stools to sit on, but Cork ranks at the top of the wine bars in Basque Country. And the pintxos are really good too!

Drive: 35 minutes

Remenetxe (Muxika)

Sommelier Jon Andoni Rementeria caught the wine bug when he helped in his parents’ restaurant on the outskirts of Gernika on weekends. He soon started to lay down wines and he now boasts a collection of around 1,400 brands featuring top Riojas, most of the region’s Txakolis including some old vintages, and around 300 wines from outside Spain.

Dishes are traditional with vegetables and meat sourced from nearby farms and fresh fish brought from the port of Bermeo, 15 kilometres away.

Drive: One hour

El Clarete (Vitoria-Gasteiz)
This restaurant, run by brothers Unai and Patxi Fernández de Retana, is for me the best in the Basque capital. When they opened it in 1998, their aim was to serve top quality seasonal food accompanied with good wines and that’s what they still do.

Wines from the list of El Clarete in Spain's Basque Country

They have two great-value set menus, a short one for lunch (€26) on weekdays and a longer one (€53) everyday. Both include a bottle of Rioja Alavesa wine. The cellar is Patxi’s territory, with around 130 wines from a dozen countries which rotate occasionally, although Rioja (by proximity) and Bordeaux (his passion) occupy leading places in the cellar of this former professional Jai Alai player.

Drive: 45 minutes

Amelibia (Laguardia)

Since Amelibia opened in 2015 in Laguardia, a beautiful village in Rioja Alavesa, Alex Álvarez always had some geeky wines in her cellar, but the official list was recently extended to small and medium-sized producers from Rioja and other areas of Spain and abroad, including a handful of champagnes, all at moderate prices and served in high quality glassware.

The à la carte menu features traditional recipes and seasonal ingredients lovingly prepared by chef Patxi Amelibia, Alex’s husband. Service is friendly and efficient. The restaurant opens only at lunchtime.

Drive: 35 minutes

Arrea! (Santa Cruz de Campezo)

This bar and restaurant serves hearty dishes prepared with local ingredients sourced from the mountains and rivers near this village at the confluence of Álava and Navarra.

The wine list is diverse and reasonably priced. In addition to a short but interesting offer of wines by the glass – remember that Arrea! is in the middle of nowhere – the list includes around 60 wines by the bottle, mainly from Rioja Alavesa but also Txakoli, other areas in Spain including sherry, a handful of champagnes and wines from areas as exotic in these lands as Jura, Germany, Austria and Argentina.

Drive: One hour

Zezilionea (Olaberria)

Driving along country roads and valleys with factories like the Arcelor Mittal plant in the province of Gipuzkoa, you get to Olaberria, a small village close to great hiking routes and home to Bengoetxe, one of my favourite Txakoli producers. Right next to the church is Zezilionea, a large caserío housing a hotel and restaurant that serves simple yet delicious food like fresh grilled fish or roasted wild mushrooms, the houses speciality.

The wine list, curated by wine-loving owner Ugutz Rubio, includes well-known Rioja brands like Tondonia or Prado Enea and Txakoli from the three Basque DOs at very good prices, but also natural and biodynamic wines from Ribeira Sacra, Tenerife, Jura and the Loire.

Drive: 35 minutes

Arteaga Landetxea (Arrasate-Mondragón)

This beautifully restored 15th century stone building with great views of Urkiola National Park houses a charming restaurant ran by the equally charming Maider Larrañaga and her husband and chef Igor Ezpeleta.

The first thing clients see when they enter Arteaga is a wine fridge with several hundred bottles including two dozen champagnes plus a diverse and eclectic selection of wines from France, Spain and beyond that changes regularly.   

Maider Larranaga at Arteaga in Spain's Basque Country

A real wine enthusiast, English-speaking Maider loves to open bottles of her latest liquid discoveries for like-minded clients to drink with the traditional dishes that Igor prepares like the tuna with roasted red peppers picked from their vegetable garden.

Drive: 50 minutes

Kaia-Kaipe (Getaria)
Founded in 1962, restaurant Kaia-Kaipe is right by the port of this fishing village. A classic dish of the house (and indeed, the village) is turbot, grilled over the embers in one whole piece and filleted in front of the customer.

Eating at Kaia-Kaipe isn’t cheap, but food prices are compensated for by the chance to try some judiciously priced wines among the 40,000 bottles (including old vintages) and more than 1,000 brands stored in its cellar. Some belong to Igor Arregui’s personal collection, but he is always happy to uncork a few for people who appreciate these jewels.

Drive: 25 minutes

Rekondo (San Sebastián)

This stone caserío on Mount Igeldo houses one of the best restaurant wine cellars in the world. The basement stores upwards of 125,000 bottles and around 4,000 different selections ranging from Txakoli to verticals of Vega Sicilia going back to 1917, or Rioja classics such as Marqués de Riscal with some 80 to 90 vintages, as well as the top names from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Owner Txomin Rekondo, now in his eighties, still likes to greet clients, but it is Argentine sommelier Martin Flea, a passionate wine lover, who now takes care of this great liquid treasure.

The real treat at Rekondo is to have lunch or dinner and open a few bottles. Rice with clams and txangurro (spider crab) are classic dishes, always served in generous portions. [See Nick’s 2005 review and my 2005 appreciation of this landmark cellar – JR]

Drive: 10 minutes

Ganbara (San Sebastián)

With over 25 years of history, Ganbara [pictured trop right and reviewed by Nick here] is still a favourite with customers sidling up to the counter to enjoy classic pintxos and platters on offer like kokotxas (hake or cod cheeks).

Wines by the glass include a diverse and generally interesting offer of mostly Spanish wines that range from Viña Tondonia to the volcanic wines of Tenerife. It is worth visiting on a weekday, around 2.30–3pm, when the crowds are gone and the waiters are less busy. The basement houses a dining room with less than a dozen tables so booking is a good idea. 

Walk: 1 minute

Gandarias (San Sebastián)

Another popular spot with a colourful counter full of pintxos. A small army of uniformed waiters deftly deal with locals and tourists, particularly from the French Basque Country, who come here to enjoy good food at attractive prices.

Gandarias is always busy but attention is paid to their wine service with good glassware and correct temperatures. Aside from the traditional Rioja brands, their Enomatic machine holds a dozen rotating selections and a few sherries served either in a glass or in a copita (clients choose). They also have a selection of foreign bottles, mainly from France.

Bar with Pintxos at Ganbara, San Sebastián, Basque Country