Yes, never let it be said that our primary focus on real-world helpful consumer advice is slipping. Today we are donning our Serious Reviewer Hats and getting to the bottom of a dilemma which has long-vexed many a cider lover. Namely: you’re in Bilbao Airport, with two duty free Basque cider options to pick from, and budget or hand-luggage space for only one. But Which One Do You Choose?
All silliness aside, there are a couple of points worth highlighting here, the first of which is: glory be, an airport duty free with full-juice dry cider available! What a time to be alive! I’ve been through airports more in the last year than in the ten that preceded it, and I can tell you that such options do not exist at Gatwick or Heathrow. The good folk of Bilbao get a little gastronomic gem, somewhat oddly called ‘Foodies’, replete with Txakoli, Sagardoa, red wine galore, whole legs of ham that made me ponder how much space I had in my carry-on, and mountains of delicious produce besides. We get a Wetherspoons with a bad pun name. Them’s the breaks.
I’d been in San Sebastián for a few days, since it was my first wedding anniversary (Paper, apparently). I’d visited the city once before, in the middle of March 2020, and the day after I left Spain went into its first lockdown. So this, as you’d expect, was a different trip in many respects, and it affirmed a suspicion I’d held on my last visit, which is that San Sebastián might just be my favourite city in the world. An endlessness of rugged, green-brown sandstone-limestone, shaggy-forested mountains and jagged, rough-cut coastline, with pristine, bleached-gold beaches and sea that was kind enough to put on its most sparkling-blue performance throughout our stay. Not to mention a gastronomic culture that no other city I‘ve visited even approaches.
Never mind that the place has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else; I’m simply not sure it’s possible to find a less than outstanding meal there, almost irrespective of your budget. Not being in Michelin strike-zone ourselves, we generally adopted the tactic of ‘walk into first place that looks good’, which invariably was just the first reasonably-priced place we reached. Near-wriggling-fresh seafood grilled in little wire baskets over coals, mountains of octopus and potatoes thick with paprika, game with the wild scent of the hills still on it, endless plates of ham and padrón peppers with piquantly-perfect tomato bread. All cut through by the glorious citrusy skewer of blisteringly-fresh white Txakoli, the broader starburst of Basque cider (Sagardoa), the surprisingly good Basque beer (a new discovery for us) and, when the meat deepened and reddened, the heft and textural glossiness of Rioja Crianza. Not to mention the wild, addictive theatre of txotx. Reader, it was four days of shameless gluttony, and thank Christ the walks there are so breathtakingly compelling yet relentlessly steep or I’d have come back twice the man I am.
So much for Basque gastronomy — for the time being, at least; I’ll be back with a longer musing in a week or two. For now, back to Bilbao Airport and our Vital Customer Research.
Both of our sparring pair come from the Basque Country, though neither is quite walking distance from San Sebastián, both being a little closer to Bilbao, which rather makes sense. Both are blends of unnamed varieties and, as is the custom, likely to be dry, low in tannin and relatively sharp. Not sure whether fermentations were spontaneous or with cultured yeasts (answers in the comments if you know, please!) but judging by pictures on the website fermentation seems to take place in the huge chestnut casks much-beloved in the region. (Though several cideries also use stainless steel these days).
Both also bear the red capsule that denotes ‘Euskal Sagardoa’ — the rung of the Basque Cider PDO ladder that demands the bottles that bear it be filled entirely with cider from Basque apples and to have achieved a certain independently judged score. (As opposed to ‘Gorenak’ (black capsule), which must hit the same score, but can include apples from elsewhere, or ‘Euskal Sagardoa Premium’ (gold capsule) which requires Basque apples and a higher independent score.
A quick look at their respective cideries — Axpe and Uxarte — reveals that both have the typically pared-back ranges of most Basque producers; one or two SKUs only. They also both place themselves within the context of the broader gastronomic culture, not only taking part in the annual txotx season between January and April, but existing as restaurants even outside of that. Axpe even make a Txakoli as well, which was also on sale in the airport (I decided I was clanking enough, and left that one there, not without regret).
The Axpe, from Bilbao Duty Free, set me back €4.50, whilst foodies priced the Uxarte at a princely €5.90. Both are served in 750mls, this being continental Europe, and before anyone starts commenting on what ridiculously reasonable prices those are, and why can’t our 750s in the UK be as low as that, I’d gently remind you that a. these cideries are considerably larger than most of the sub-7000 litre British counterparts and b. you should address your criticisms to the British government and its ridiculous and depressing system for taxing drinks.
Oh — and I’ve been sure to pour them in the approved Basque manner, which is to say from a foot or so over the glass, in small amounts at a time, to give it that little spritz of carbonation. (As seen in shameless holiday picture, below). I noticed that quite a few ciders now give this helpful directive on their back labels, which I think is a very sensible move, especially if exports are on the up.
Enough with the stats and asides already. The plane’s about to board — which cider are you bringing back with you?
Axpe Euskal Sagardoa – review
How I served: Well-chilled, poured in small doses from +/- two feet above the glass
Appearance: Berocca water!
On the nose: Pretty classic Basque Sagardoa. Pithy orange, nosing into more tropical passion fruit, buzzing about with a citrusy hoppiness and a touch of pineapple. Zingy and high-toned, but with a hint of horse blanket and farmyard. Just a hint. Touches of volatility, as is fairly standard for the region, but certainly not on the most rustic end of the spectrum.
In the mouth: Full-bodied by Basque standards. Fresh, with broad, zingy, orange-and-pineapple acidity. More pith. Fruitier than the nose, by my mileage; none of that barnyard character, and although there is a certain level of volatility, it’s fairly well-behaved and well-balanced with the fruit. Drunk with food (as this is certainly intended to be) I don’t think you’d notice it all that much.
In a nutshell: Definitely straddles the fence between the older and more modern faces of Basque cider, but a good introduction to the style.
Uxarte Euskal Sagardoa (2021? – a guess from batch number) – review
How I served: As above.
Appearance: Near-identical to above. Perhaps a touch less cloudy.
On the nose: A clear and fruity nose. Actually fairly low in volatility by Basque standards. Lemons, clementines. A greenness of fresh-cut grass. Dandelions and the centres of daisies. Yellow wine gums. Rather rounded and alluring, actually.
In the mouth: Also rounded in the mouth, abetted by some pithy pitterness. Hops again. Citrus peel. Lemons and tonic. All quite high-toned and tasty until sadly, and very unexpectedly, what should appear on the finish but a musty, fusty, fairly small but nonetheless party-pooping dose of mouse. What a shame.
In a nutshell: The lucky 40% impervious to mouse will have a lot of fun here, but sadly it’s not for me. Excellent until the finish though.
Reviewing a cider or perry inevitably puts it into a particular context — a vacuum, really — which arguably is some way removed from the way it was intended to be drunk and which doubtless allows it to shine brightest. I’ve no doubt that both of these (assuming you’re insensitive to mouse) would be just the thing if drunk at a seaside San Sebastián bar or restaurant, with a few pintxos or a plate of grilled fish. Or washing down courses of salt cod and tenderloin during a righteous and possibly riotous txotx meal. Tasted in isolation, with a spittoon and notebook in a study in Reading, it’s probably fair to say that I’m completely missing the point.
My preference, right up until the finish, was going to be the Uxarte, but taken through the binary and perhaps not always helpful prism of favourites, I’m going to have to say that overall the Axpe just about takes it, for me. Really though, this tasting was a reminder that cider — particularly full-juice cider, particularly full-juice cider tied so intrinsically to a particular regional cuisine — deserves to be thought of as a part of a broader gastronomic tableau. Which isn’t to discredit reviews, per se — that would be rather self-sabotaging — simply to remind myself that there is a bigger picture behind all this which forms a vital part of the international world we are collectively building.
So perhaps the best piece of consumer advice this article has to offer is to not make the mistake I did, and to make sure you do bring back some duty free jamón to go with your cider after all.