When Ameztoi Rubentis rolled up on these shores 15 years ago, there was nothing else like it. Irresistibly brisk, intentionally spritzy and the color of pink sand, Rubentis crossed the Atlantic from Spain’s Basque region, then relatively unknown to most American wine drinkers.
Not only was there nothing like Rubentis in the United States, there was nothing like it in Spain. Ignacio Ameztoi’s family has been making wine in the fishing village of Getaria for five generations, and until 2005, they’d exclusively made txakoli, the region’s signature, slightly effervescent, citrusy white wine, meant for drinking with abandon. He wanted to try something new.
In 2005, he called André Tamers of De Maison Selections, his U.S. importer, to get Tamers’ take on whether a rosé (rosado) txakoli, the first of its kind, might have a shot at success in the States. His family owned a small plot of very old—some 150 years old—red hondarrabi beltza vines in Zarautz, a small town that dangles over the Atlantic just east of Getaria. His idea was to blend the small amount of these red grapes with the region’s white hondarrabi zuri grape to make Basque Country’s first pink wine.
“What if I had a txakoli rosé and only sold it to you? Would you take 50 cases?” Tamers recalls asking the wine buyer at New York’s Casa Mono and Bar Jamón. At the time, Casa Mono was at the forefront of Spanish wine, and was an important stop for out-of-town sommeliers and lovers of the Iberian Peninsula. “Txakoli represented a new culture of Spain that wasn’t well known,” says Tamers. “And it was evidence that Spain didn’t just make 15 percent [alcohol] wines.”
“It was the perfect blend of novel and crushable—serious enough to spark conversation, but not enough to ruin the party.”
At Casa Mono, the wine’s appeal was only accentuated by the way in which it was poured: from on high “very dramatically,” adds Ashley Santoro, a former wine director there. Soon, Tamers had sommeliers from other parts of the country asking for bottles for their restaurants.
Over the course of the following 10 years, Rubentis became something of a talisman for a generation of sommeliers reared on wines that pushed acid levels ever higher. It was the perfect blend of novel and “crushable”—serious enough to spark conversation, but not enough to ruin the party. “We call it Baby Jesus because it’s so young and divine,” said Beau Ross, co-owner of Bacchanal in New Orleans, in a YouTube video from 2012. The moniker has traveled beyond the hot, humid backyard at Bacchanal, says Coryn Caspar, the current wine director. She even recalls hearing a bartender refer to it as such at an oyster bar in San Francisco a few years back.
Word of the wine’s “divinity” spread from coast to coast. Rubentis is now fawned after, porroned, aggressively depleted and, as such, highly allocated. But it isn’t just well-loved amongst “wine people”; it has also found a fervent following with casual drinkers who have no interest in its cult status. So how is it that this frothy pink wine from a windblown corner of Spain came to captivate a generation of drinkers?
For one, the chance to drink a wine made from hondarrabi beltza is a rarity. “There’s a vanishingly small percentage of plantings,” says Mia Van de Water, head of beverage operations at Cote in New York and Miami, the only two restaurants in the country to have the wine in magnum. Per Wine Grapes, there are only 17 acres of hondarrabi beltza vines planted in northern Spain. In 2009, researchers found that hondarrabi beltza was actually a parent of cabernet franc, which is why the two had been confused (and were actually interplanted) in the region over the years. It’s also why hondarrabi beltza is sometimes found in old vineyards on the French side of the Pyrenees. The two grapes have a similar herbal or green pepper note, which is present in Rubentis.
“Ameztoi Rubentis was one of the first wines that I fell in love with as a young somm,” says Van de Water. “It’s funny, with charming characteristics, and perfect from a porron because it’s only, like, 10.5 percent alcohol.”
The wine’s low alcohol content is part of what initially drew Mark Ellenbogen to it. Ellenbogen ran the wine list at San Francisco’s Slanted Door from 1996 until 2010 and was one of the first buyers to proselytize lower alcohol wines (namely riesling) just as they came to symbolize a generational shift in wine aesthetics. He was driven to put Rubentis on the list by something else, however. “I needed to find alternatives for riesling-phobes that would not be unpleasant with a range of dishes,” says Ellenbogen. “It was much better than any tannic red or higher alcohol wine.” To this day, Rubentis is nonnegotiable on the Slanted Door list.
Once again defying the norm, in 2011 Ameztoi released an iteration of Rubentis made in the Champagne method (that is, bottle-fermented as opposed to the traditional in-tank carbonation typical of txakoli) from high-altitude vines called Hijo de Rubentis (“Son of Rubentis”). While this more serious, richer wine has certainly found its adopters, the Rubentis die-hards, both sommeliers and backyard drinkers alike, stand by the breezy, beguiling nature of the OG. Chef Matthew Kelly of Mateo in Durham, North Carolina, is one of them. He sums up the more ineffable—or divine, if you will—aspect of Rubentis’ appeal best.
“When I’m ordering Rubentis, I feel like it’s Champagne,” says Kelly. “Obviously it’s nothing like Champagne—but it feels just as special.”