For months now, the sparkling wine known as txakoli - or chacolí - has been at the center of a bitter dispute between the Basque Country, Cantabria and Castilla y León. All three regions argue that they are entitled to use the name to market a wine made from green grapes that has been produced in northern Spain for centuries.
But last September the Basque Nationalist Party took a motion to Congress proposing that only the three Basque areas with Denominación de Origen (or D.O., a quality label awarded to regions whose food products meet stringent criteria) be allowed to call their wine txakoli, chacolí, txakolin, chacolín or txakolina. Since November 2010, only Vizcaya, Álava and Getaria can officially call their txakoli "txakoli."
The Basque Country, Cantabria and Castilla y León say they are entitled to the same name
The 400 Basque producers feel that the issue is a matter of "opportunism"
This immediately prompted the other two areas that have a history of producing the wine - eastern Cantabria and northern Burgos - to claim their right to the name. Cultural associations from Cantabria even produced historical documents from local archives dating back to the 18th century, where the term chacolí was already included. Over in Burgos, researchers went as far back as the 16th century, and drew attention to a verse from the zarzuela play of San Juan del Monte that mentions txakoli.
But the nearly 400 Basque producers feel that the issue is a matter of "opportunism" rather than historical concerns. The fact is that txakoli used to be a cheap wine, which was often produced by individual farmers in their own homes and left much to be desired in terms of its quality. But over recent decades, professional wineries have vastly improved txakoli by applying modern technologies to its production, in the process managing to raise its status.
The Basque government has made it clear that it will not allow "the usurpation of the txakoli brand," and that it is ready to take its case to court. In fact, it has already sent the government of Castilla y León a request to eliminate the "Chacolí" Término de Miranda brand, which Burgos introduced at the prestigious Madrid Fusión food fair last month. So far, Castilla y León has merely confirmed that it will carry out the required inspections to oversee how the word txakoli gets used, though not in an "urgent" or "priority" manner.
Provincial authorities from Burgos figure that there are around 60 producers of this slightly acidic, sparkling wine in the north of the province who wish to "recover a product that is part of this community's heritage, against the obtuse stand of Basque nationalism, which is trying to limit production to the borders of that autonomous region," says Borja Suárez, the Popular Party (PP) leader in the provincial council. This council, under PP control, is planning to build a txakoli research center to help growers develop initiatives to produce and market their wines under the Alto Ebro Denomination of Origin.
Meanwhile, the Association for the Defense of Cantabria's Interests (ADIC) filed a petition in the regional parliament two months ago in which it described txakoli as "an integral part of Cantabrian enology, a resource that may be developed by the Cantabrian food and agriculture sector mirroring the traditions and historical practices of winemaking in Cantabria." The group defends its "legitimate right" to make use of its own heritage, and ADIC's president, Bernardo Colsa, asserts that txakoli has been "the fisherman's wine since the 18th century," and that it is, in fact, originally from "the Cantabrian coast," more specifically from the stretch of land between Santander and Hondarribia. But, says Colsa, "a plague ravaged the crop" and forced the region to move on to other products.
"This is not a face-off between villages or a political issue, but if someone forces us to politicize it, we will," Colsa concludes. The Cantabrian parliament is still pending a decision on the petition.
Meanwhile, the three Basque Denomination of Origin areas that currently make txakoli expressed "surprise" at the scope of the controversy. The technical secretary of the Bizkaiko Txakolina D.O., Antón Txapartegi, says that despite everything, producers feel "protected by all the institutions," from the Basque government down to the Agriculture Minister, but that they will nevertheless remain vigilant of wine that may be fraudulently sold as txakoli.
What's more, Txapartegi argues that part of the controversy has been stoked by a few producers who "angrily" walked out from two D.O.'s, and that outside the Basque Country "there is no moderately professional sector that works with these wines. You cannot put the brand ahead of the wine."
"They have no right to create other txakolis. We will not allow it," adds the secretary of the Álava D.O., José Antonio Merino.
The Basque deputy commissioner of agriculture, José Luis Anda, is critical of the fact that other communities are trying to "take advantage of the efforts" of Basque producers, and warns that the Basque executive will be merciless with fakes, since txakoli is a term for the "exclusive use" of Basque producers according to 2002 legislation.
The Basque government is even planning on creating a special surveillance unit that will scour the internet for fake txakolis. Anda is also asking consumers to "demand" Denomination of Origin txakoli at bars and restaurants and not stand for wannabes.