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Txoko co-owner and wine director Ryan Maxey wants to help diners discover vintages from the lesser-known regions of Spain.

Beyond rioja at Txoko

Enough with the inky, dusty reds. Spanish wine reveals its lighter side at the Basque restaurant.

When it comes to wine, San Francisco loves to specialize. The town is filled with restaurants that stock their cellars with primarily Italian, French, or American bottles. And then we have places that highlight specific locales such as southern Italy (A16), Sardinia (La Ciccia), the Loire Valley (AQ), and Burgundy (RN74), to name only a few. What’s been missing are new restaurants with similarly focused commitments to the bounty of wines from Spain. Happily, that is no longer the case.

      Last May, the new Basque restaurant Txoko, where wine director and co-owner Ryan Maxey is featuring a little-known style of Spanish wine, opened in North Beach.

     Most wine drinkers are familiar with tempranillo, the main grape used to make big, dark riojas. And while these wines get top scores from the mainstream critics and are found stacked several cases high at wine shops, they are anathema to many sommeliers, who make a point of turning up their noses at retail offerings and like to flaunt their independence from the popular press.

     But Maxey, like a handful of other wine directors, has discovered a new side of Spanish wine in exotic regions like Bierzo, Rías Baixas, Navarra, Valdeorras, and the Canary Islands, which produce the kind of fascinating, often obscure wines sommeliers take to like catnip.

     “We don’t want run-of-the-mill, oaky Spanish reds,” says Maxey. “We want wines that are fresh, approachable, high in acid, moderate in alcohol, and affordable. You can find these in Spain, but these wines from lesser-known regions are new to most people here.”

     A striking white from Valdeorras that tastes of nuts and apples and has lift despite a solid, muscular body makes an engaging pairing for a bocadillo de boquerones—a little sandwich of chèvre, anchovy, dried tomato, and an over-easy quail egg on Acme pain de mie. Lightly cured and grilled sardines over fennel and citrus salad with chili oil pick up the perky brightness of a Can Feixes blanc made from the xarello grape in the Penedes. And a buoyant listán negro from the Canary Islands is a smooth and pithy match for a spicy, meaty lamb’s-tongue salad with shishito peppers, smoked potatoes, and frisée. The flavors will come as a surprise to those who only know Spain’s darker, heavier reds.

     The fortunes of Spanish wines appear to be on the upswing. Bask, another new Basque restaurant, is scheduled to open soon just blocks from Txoko. And while I sat talking to Maxey, I made the acquaintance of two men who were sizing up the competition: They were getting ready to start work on Marbella, a Spanish restaurant set to open in Russian Hill this summer. Luckily, Spain’s selection of wine is vast and diverse enough to work with multiple menus—and to keep adventurous drinkers coming back for more.

Read about our favorite three bottles on Txoko's list.