Corks+Forks: Pintxo’s Meatballs & Rioja Crianza

Basque bites and barrel-aged Tempranillo are a match made in coastal heaven.

A pintxo should not be confused with a tapa. The pintxo, a small plate or snack of Basque Country, Spain origin, is a hobnob – a conduit to socialize at a bar, tavern or restaurant and is thought to be the bedrock of Basque culture. The main difference between the two is simple – a pintxo is more often than not skewered by a toothpick.

The Basque people traditionally celebrate the “open door policy” for free trade and neighborly practices and although the first isn’t necessarily put into play in Seattle’s Pintxo in Belltown, patrons can find classic and dynamic Basque dishes.

Less than 100 miles south of the most northern tip of Basque Country sits Spain’s claim to fame in wine – La Rioja. The motherland for Tempranillo, the grape that’s name derives from the word “temprano” in reference to the early ripening of the fruit, the variety is dubbed the country’s only true “noble grape.” Tempranillo wines are typically easy chuggers, with bright red fruit, vanilla, herbal tones and tobacco aromas and flavors.

Rioja’s pride is put into the use of this grape, with classifications that divide the quality of Tempranillo into four categories. The lowest label goes to the youngest where Tempranillo spends less than one year in oak and is titled a Rioja, where a Crianza is Tempranillo that is aged for at least two years. Rioja Reserva is aged for a minimum of three years, one of which must be in oak and the granddaddy of them all is Rioja Gran Reserva that has been aged in oak for at least two years and has been resting in the bottle for three. The wines are customarily 100% Tempranillo.

The Restaurant: Pintxo — In the uprising of tapas bars, Pintxo stands alone in the Basque food department along with its affordable pricing and happy hour robbery. Authentic in cuisine as well as the strictly Spanish wine list and specialty cocktail menu, Pintxo reveals the delicacies of one of the world’s most stunning subregions while in the confines of a rectangular Belltown spot that also exhibits local artists’ work on its walls.

The Dish: Albondigas con salsa tomate — Beef, pork and sometimes lamb meatballs blanketed in a tomato and piquillo pepper sauce ($6), a Pintxo house specialty and calling card to the Basque’s carnivorous yet simple ways.

The Variety: Rioja Crianza — A smidge more specific than Tempranillo in general as this wine writer whole-heartedly believes Tempranillo outside of Spain is silly, Rioja Crianza (pronounced cree-AHN-tha) is consistently delicious. With a touch of oak to bring the grape into another maturity level, Crianza is a more bang for your buck wine as it can usually be scored for easily under $15.

Why It Works: Crianzas are typically medium-bodied, silky and elegant yet powerful and dense in acidity to entitle them to be classic food wines. Mouth-watering in texture, the sauce-saturated meatballs and tomato salsa give the push to the Crianza’s pull. Kissed by oak, Crianza’s have enough power to counterbalance the density of a spiced meatball.

The Recommended Match: Bodegas LAN 2006 Rioja Crianza — Brimming with dark cherry, deep spice, licorice and hints of vanilla aromas, this wine ($10) is approachable for the tamer of tastes and still elaborate enough for the connoisseurs. The berry fruit comes out on the palate in a forward and velvet lining, giving the mouthfeel a lavish yet ladylike feel.

Think a lighter, fruit-favored fur coat for your mouth. Then eat a meatball and sigh, picturing the scenic coast lines of San Sebastian and secretly plotting your sunny European excursion.

Pintxo | 2207 2nd Avenue, Seattle | (206) 441-4042