Great French wines are found in the Basque.
Most people think of Spain when they hear the word Basque. But a little known fact is 15% of the area lies within southern France, where the coastal towns of Biarritz, Bayonne, and St-Jean-de-Luz entertain sun worshipers and surfers while just inland Hendaye in the Pyrénées foothills captivates hikers.
The south west of France “le sud-ouest” is rich with wine. It’s true the areas immediately east and south of Bordeaux- Côtes de Bergerac and environs, Côtes du Marmandais, Buzet- produce excellent Bordeaux styles. A favorite Rosé and rouge are from Chateau Lestevenie. But keep heading south. You’ll pass several places exploding with interesting wines and less familiar, indigenous grapes before hitting the French Basque country
Non-Mainstream Grape Varieties of the Sud-Ouest
There are over 100 indigenous grape varieties in the southwest, here are just a few, maybe you’ve heard of some?!?
WHITE – Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Courbu, Abouriou, Clairette Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Arrufiac, Baroque, Camarelet, Lauzet, Len de l’El (a.k.a. Len de l’Oeil), Mauzac, Ondenc, Raffiat
RED – Duras, Fer Servadou, Mérille, Négrette, Prunelard Noir, Tannat
Irouléguy, pronounced “ee-rew-le-ghee”, is a small wine appellation lying within a valley just outside St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where people start the Camino de Santiago. It’s 50k from the ocean and 8k from the Spanish border. This is part of Gascony and the Pyrénées AOC sub-region.
Many vineyards are on terraced, steep slopes from 100 to 400+ meters above sea level (300 to 1,200 feet). Because Irouléguy is in a valley surrounded by mountains that shield from cooler north winds, summer and fall months are warm and dry. The microclimate has several soils types, enjoying mountain and Atlantic weather influences.
This 8-hectare property, biodynamic since 2008, is run by Michel and Thérèse Riouspeyrous. It’s text book Iroulégy with a plethora of soils types, each imparting a particular character. Take Orphite, the volcanic rock with iron oxide- it brings power and structure. Grés, the metamorphic sandstone that’s principally quartz and mica imparts bright acidity and a wild thought provoking tension. Different types of limestone, common in many areas of France are found too. In Irouléguy, the limestone contains lots of clay, imparting texture, mineral notes and lively acid. In red wines, it seems to balance things out.
At Maison Arretxea there is a difference tasting wine made with the same grapes but on varying soils. All whites are blends of Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, and Courbu, thriving on the sandstone layered with limestone, clay, and various minerals. They each have a different profile.
Reds and rosé are primarily Tannat, but also contain Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, per AOC rules. They’re aged in cement or large wooden barrels “foudres”.
Arretxea produces more white than red, but the reds are worth finding. They’ve made wine almost 30 years yet we consider their style of Tannat more contemporary and rustically smooth.
Mark and I tasted the Arretxea porfolio over a year ago. Visit notes resurfaced our delight, so much so I hunted down a bottle and reread our Irouléguy wine and hiking trip post. Back then, we researched the area however the Sommelier B&B host took us straight to Maison Arretxea (pronounced Ah-Ree-Cha).
Maison Arretxea Irouléguy 2015
This 66% Tannat, 17% each Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is just 12% alcohol and not a tannic bomb as one might think. On grés soil (sandstone with minerals), it’s tamed just enough, having fresh, mineral driven brightness with rustic yet supple tannins. Aromas of wild black fruit- cherry and berry- aren’t the clean and pure kind, but remind me of picking wild berries with a bit of forest mint and field flowers. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants imports this, and a few Arretxea white wines. (18 euros/$21).
Borda Xuria Blanc 2014
The Domain Borda Xuria biodynamically produced white was highly recommended, a great quality-price ratio too (16 euros/$18). 60% Gros Manseng and 40% of Petit Manseng, 90% is directly pressed while 10% macerates for about 18 hours before pressing. 70% of the volume is fermented and aged in older 400 liter barrels; the remaining 30% in stainless steel vats, then blended. Total aging is 6 months.
This had an intensely expressive nose of white peach, exotic fruit notes, and discrete blond raspberries. A balanced, tense yet crisp mouth feel reminded me of wet stone, citrus and dried flowers. Having a medium body with medium+ acidity, it softened elegantly, lingering on the finish and was quite nice with the mixed greens with cherries. We had it the second night with Trofie pasta, pesto and Parmesan, an exceptional pairing. I hadn’t had a wine from Irouléguy in some time and am reminded just how fabulous they are. Borda Xuria Blanc and the Arretxea Iroulégy Rouge are exceptional wines!
French #Winophiles Head to the Southwest
The third Saturday of each month the #Winophiles embark on a different theme pertaining to French wine. Wine, food and travel writers and enthusiasts share their adventures and virtually meet for a tweet-up on that date. Southwest France is the July theme, hosted by Jeff Burrows of Food, Wine, Click. Our Twitter chat is July 15th – join us using the #Winophiles hashtag. Check out the #Winophiles and their Sud Ouest adventures below.
- Jill at L’occasion shares “Périgord Wines: Bergerac and Duras”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Southern France at a Midwest BBQ”
- Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Pistachio-Armagnac Sabayon with Strawberries and Meringues”
- Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “#Winophiles Showdown: Cahors vs Applegate Valley”
- Rob from Odd Bacchus shares “Bergerac: Underappreciated Wines & Controversial Cuisine”
- Martin from Enofylz shares “Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac? Oh My!”
- Olivier from In Taste Buds We Trust shares “If it makes you happy…”
- Nicole from Somm’s Table shares “Cooking to the Wine: Paul Bertrand Crocus Malbec de Cahors with Lavender-Herb Ribeye” and Grilled Veggies
- Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Toast #TDF2017 with Wines from the Côtes de Gascogne“
- Jeff from Food Wine Click! shares “Exploring Madiran with Vignobles Brumont”
- Gwen from Wine Preditor shares “Finding and Pairing Wine, Cheese and Spirits from SouthWest France for French #Winophiles”
- Lynn from Savor the Harvest shares “Basque-ing in the Sud-Ouest: Wines of Irouléguy #Winophiles“
Facts about Irouléguy and French Pays Basque
- Irouleguy means “three crests” in Basque
- Wine production is 70% red, 20% rosé, and 10% white
- Approximately 300 different grape varieties identified with about 120 indigenous
- Tannat in Irouléguy is different, tending to be medium bodied, lighter and fresher.
- The area is famous for dried Bayonne ham, sheep’s milk cheese and piment d’espelette, a spicy powder made from ground small red peppers.
The Sud Ouest is made up of four sub-regions:
- Dordogne/Bergerac AOC
- Garonne and Tarn AOC
- Lot AOC
- Pyrénées AOC
It also includes several IGPs (Indication Géographique Protégée), a quality level that allows for stepping outside of AOC strict rules:
IGP Côtes de Gascogne, Landes, Agenais, Gers, Côtes du Lot,Thézac Perricard, La Villedieu, Coteaux de Glanes, Aveyron, Côtes du Tarn, Comté Tolosan and Ariège.
The famous brandy Armagnac lies is the same area as the IGP Côtes de Gascogne!