Behind the faded glamour of Biarritz’s beach front and beyond the picturesque fishing village of Saint Jean de Luz there are 544 acres of the most seductively obscure and tantalisingly original wines you’ll ever taste. Tucked up into the misty, fertile crevices of the Pyrénées’ foothills, AOC Irouléguy is said to be the smallest appellation in France. It undeservedly gets lost among its better-known south-western cousins, such as Bergerac, Buzet, Madiran, Cahors and Jurançon.

Irouléguy is in Basque Country, a place that is fiercely independent and unique. Even their language, Basque, is a ‘language isolate’. The true origins of the Basque people are unknown, but the favoured theory is that they descend directly from the Cro-Magnons who took refuge in the area during the last ice age, and they share DNA variants with people who today can be mostly found in Wales and Ireland. Their region is described as ‘part France, part Spain’ and the Basque continue to wage a battle for independence from both.

The Magic Trilogy

No fancy international trends here, then, thank you – just properly rustic, robust and traditional wines of great character and personality. The sun-kissed winds from the region’s scorched beaches chase the sea spray-laden clouds into the mountainsides, where they’re trapped and release their burden upon the steeply-terraced vineyards. A magic trilogy is created by the combination of the favoured exposition (south-facing, 400-metre elevation, cooling sea air), the indigenous grapes and the red-stained, mineral soils.

There are only a handful of producers in the appellation, one of which is a co-operative. Irouléguy was hit hard by the phylloxera epidemic and, due to its isolated location, was slow to recover from this and later world events. But it’s this same isolation that served to preserve its originality. Here flourish the red varieties of Tannat, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet, try Domaine Brana’s Cuvée Bizi Berri – a moody brew of the rare Arrouya and Erremaxaoua grape varieties, with a bit of Cabernet Franc. These grapes produce spicy, tannic, well-structured reds needing at least five years of cellaring, and refreshing, aromatic rosés. These are proper rosés, the sort that aren’t overly-cloying and sweet, but which are spicy, peppery and structured enough to either be sipped by the pool or handle an entire meal. If you dislike rosés, these could change your mind. The refreshingly acidic and clean white wines are issued from Petit Courbu and the Petit and Gros Mansengs varieties.

The oldest producer in the appellation is the Domaine Ilarria which, when owner Peio Espil decides that the year is good enough, produces a dark concoction of dense black cherry and spices named Cuvée Bixintxo. Otherwise, we must content ourselves with his delicious rosé and white wines. Château Petrus’s wine-maker, Jean-Claude Berrouet, is originally Basque and has returned to make his own wines. Berrouet’s white Herri Mina is coming along nicely. Domaine Etxegaraya’s Cuvee Aitaina is delicious and Domaine Arretxea’s red Haitza and white Hegoxuri are both elegant, racy wines.

Perfect Partners

Of course, the wines are the perfect match for the local produce and its cuisine – nature’s bedfellows. Both the sea and the mountains offer us their delicacies: Ossau-Iraty cheese, Jambon de Bayonne, chorizo from Pamplona, red peppers from Espelette, cherry jam, asparagus, artichokes, grilled meats, fresh seafood, gâteau Basque, piperade, foie gras, corn bread… and more. Come here to surf, swim or sail; to have a tryst with Lady Luck at the casinos and dance all night; to play golf or pelota, listen to jazz or watch a bullfight; and to visit the pintxos (tapas) bars from Saint Jean de Luz to San Sebastian… but please don’t neglect to venture into the mist-shrouded peace of the mountains and discover a part of France, and its wines, that still proudly retains its individuality and does things in its own way, in its own time.

Wine Contacts

Producers, négociants (merchants) and the cave coóperative for Irouléguy, and where to source wines in the U.S.

Domain Abotia, Peio Errecart

– Domaine Ameztia, Jean-Louis Costera, [email protected]

– Domaine Arretxea, Thérèse & Michel Riouspeyrous, [email protected]

Domaine Brana (négociant)

Domaine Etxegaraya, M & Mme Hillau

– Domaine Ilarria, Peio Espil, [email protected]

Domaine Mourguy, Pierre & Florence

Vignerons du Pays Basque

Irouléguy in the U.S.

Domaine Arretxea: Astor Wines, NYC; Sec Wines, Portland, OR; 5000 Wines, Portland, OR; Solano Cellars, Oakland, CA; Wine House, L.A.; Wally’s Wines & Spirits, L.A.; www.getwineonline.com

Domaine Brana: Natural Wine Company, NYC; Astor Wines, NYC; Saratoga Wine Exchange, Ballston Lake, NY; Liner & Elsen Wine, Portland, OR

Domaine Etxegaraya: Solano Cellars, Oakland, CA; www.getwineonline.com

Domaine Ilarria: Chambers St Wines, NYC; Crush Wine & Spirits, NYC; Mister Wright Fine Wines, NYC; Gordon’s Fine Wines, Waltham, MA; Wine Library, Springfield, NJ; Blackwell’s Wines & Spirits, San Francsico; Wine House, L.A.; Domaine, L.A.

 

Originally published in the August-September 2013 issue of France Today

 

 

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