Yes, the Basque country makes its own wine… and not just any wine! Led by a number of great estates, including Arretxea from the Riouspeyrous "tribe," the little Irouléguy appellation has a strong track record of producing remarkable wines… of all three colors! The proof is right here!
In the southwest corner of France, in the bottom left corner of the map, is a small wine region that too many people are still unaware of. Welcome to Basque country… and an inland area where our destination is the Irouléguy appellation, which owes its name to a small village near Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Close your eyes, and you can picture it: Green and (yes) mountainous landscapes (after all, this is the Pyrenees!), villages with immaculate facades contrasting with the red and green shutters of houses topped with tiled roofs. Here, the vines follow the curves of gentle-to-rugged terrain, sometimes planted in spectacular terraces in defiance of the extremely steep hillsides. Magnifique!
The little appellation that could
With its 240 hectares, Irouléguy could almost be Gulliver’s Lilliput, despite the fact that – in addition to the members of the local winemaking cooperative – it is home to a dozen estates with their own private cellars. If you’re looking for the perfect example of a wine region whose quality punches above its acreage, you've found it here! That’s right: Irouléguy has shown remarkable dynamism for many years, with the creation of a number of estates fronted by young growers such as Elorri Reca and Brice Robelet from Bordaxuria, or Sébastien Clauzel and Cécile Sabah from Gutizia. Most adhere to an ethical organic or biodynamic philosophy that puts the environment, the plants and the grapes first. Their predecessors – including the Brana, Illaria and (most of all) Arretxea estates, owned by the Riouspeyrous family – weathered various storms to lift the appellation out of its former anonymity.
An estate that makes a difference
Through their efforts to capture their terroir in bottled form with great sincerity, precision and inspiration, Thérèse and Michel Riouspeyrous have earned their wines a place among the most sought-after in the whole Southwest of France. And this status is richly deserved, given their quality. Irouléguy produces wines in all three colors. Reds from the Tannat, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties that are fairly lively, energetic, bursting with fruit in their youth, and – in some cases – also good for years of laying down. The same varieties are used to produce rosés with a deep color and plenty of depth, a million miles away from the currently fashionable “rosé piscine” wines. Lastly, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Courbu and Petit Courbu are used to produce white wines with great potential. The offerings from Arretxea are absolutely superb, characterized by a highly polished, mineral expression of terroir, a delicate aromatic profile, along with an energy, a balance and a freshness that stem directly from the use of biodynamics.
For the past few years, Thérèse and Michel have been gradually handing over the baton to their sons, who have been sharpening their skills elsewhere in preparation for their return to the estate. Now, under the loving eye of their parents, Iban and Téo-Bixente will be the ones working in the vines located for the most part above the family home, as they seek to forge the closest possible relationships with their parcels, and to cultivate vital biodiversity. In the cellar, too, it will be their task to vinify the marvelous raw materials of each new harvest. And these harvests must be represented with utter fidelity and carefully nurtured, all the way through to aging in casks or dolias – small amphorae designed with help from a local potter and a few winegrower friends... Such a smooth handover from parents to children calms any fears as to the future of Arretxea, the flagship of an appellation that gets a little more exciting with every vintage! One to watch (very, very) closely!
Taste France Magazine’s selection
Domaine Arretxea – Irouléguy – "Hegoxuri" 2020
This white wine features a blend of three varieties (mostly Gros Manseng, along with Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu) from two terroirs, sandstone and shale. Superb. The wine's great elegance comes from its balance between tender and taut, energy and precision.
Domaine Arretxea – Irouléguy - Rouge Tradition 2020
Blended with Cabernet Franc, Tannat is the main variety in this wine, which is sun-soaked and lively without being heavy or overpowering. Fruit, substance... and pleasure in abundance!
Domaine Arretxea – Irouléguy - "Haïtza" 2018
The estate's great red wine, still in the power of its youth. It will need more time to mature quietly in the cellar for a few years before acquiring a very direct, subtle and deep expression of its terroir.