This month the Winophiles group explores the wines of the French Basque country, which really means only one appellation: Irouléguy. This tiny wine region has experienced quite the revival in the last two decades. In fact, it turned its reputation around big time, and we love that kind of story, which applies to regions and sometimes even entire countries. We study China, which is in transition, but if you can, go back and read what wine writers used to say about the wines of Argentina in the 1990s, when they said anything at all. It wasn’t pretty.
“How do you say vinegar in Basque language?” That was the start of an old joke among French wine people a long time ago. Can you guess the answer?
Come on, try it, say a word in Basque, you know one.
That’s right: “Irouléguy.” Aaah, imagine how local wine producers must have loved that joke.
The region used to be far more developed. According to the excellent book on the wines of Southwest France by Paul Strang, Irouléguy had a strong local reputation back in the late 19th century, with a vineyard area of more than 500 hectares. But several vintages plagued by mildew, followed by the nasty phylloxera blight, took a big toll. Most farmers switched to other crops and the wines of Irouléguy were largely forgotten for a while.
The revival started in the mid-20th century at the initiative of a few motivated growers. A key catalyst for this was the creation in 1952 of the Cave d’Irouléguy, a cooperative that invested in modern equipment and built a tasting room. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée “Irouléguy” was approved in 1970, but it seems to have taken time for the wines of the region to escape an early poor reputation.
In our preparation for the Winophiles’ theme of the month, we read a few interviews that local wine growers gave in the media over the years. One reported being pleased that he had not heard the old joke “for at least two years.” Another remembered that time when he asked in a local restaurant if they had wine from the Pays Basque and got an answer he can never forget: “We don’t have Irouléguy, but we do have Rioja.” Just imagine what it must be like being a hardworking producer trying to make a living in a region working against stereotypes and/or lack of recognition.
The 2012 Sud Ouest article where these stories came from noted three main challenges. The first was improving professional standards, for better quality control. This happened throughout the 1980s, when some farmers started specializing in wine grapes and a few even started making their own wine outside of the cooperative. The second challenge was to make locals and tourists alike realize there was quality wine in their backyard. There were those who’d written it off due to the old reputation, and others who didn’t even know about it. Indeed, most vineyards were on remote steep terraced hills, and few people saw them.
This is related to the third challenge: getting people to understand why Irouléguy wine isn’t cheap. The vineyards’ topography (no machine harvesting here), combined with the fact that most growers’ acreage is tiny, means grape growing here is very labor-intensive, and the cost of production per hectare is high.
Besides improvement in quality, collective promotion has helped. Every year, during the second weekend of September, wineries open their doors and show off the steep vineyards to crowds of visitors during the Fête du Vignoble d’Irouléguy. The idea is that if people get to taste the wine and see it in context, understanding what it takes to make it, they’ll be willing to pay. Since the region attracts a lot of tourists, helped by beaches, surfing, and the promotion of Basque culture with festivals like Les Fêtes de Bayonne, there are no lack of people coming and the key has been to get their attention.
It all seems to have paid off. Though we wonder what happened after Eric Asimov raved about the region in a 2014 New York Times column. Most readers must have left their wine shop empty handed. Irouléguy remains a tiny appellation, with just about 250 hectares. The cooperative (Cave d’Irouléguy) vinifies about two thirds of that, producing around 650,000 bottles in 2015. On average, members of the coop own 3 to 4 hectares of grapes each, and for them, wine grapes supplement other farming income, notably from raising cattle. And the rest is made by a dozen (that’s it!) independent wineries, most of them former members of the coop. So, if you hear of an independent winery with 8 hectares, just know that in Irouléguy, that’s considered big. In a 2016 interview with La Tribune Toulouse, the cooperative director, Nadine Gaztambine, reported that more than half their sales occurred within the broader region (the administrative département Pyrénées Atlantiques), and the majority in July and August, so you can imagine how big a role tourism plays here. Bottom line, if you had trouble finding some Irouléguy in the US for today’s Winophiles event, it was to be expected.
pick epic fail [place your favorite Facepalm Emoji here]
We were in Toulouse visiting family two weeks ago but unusually for us, didn’t get around to do major wine shopping. So the night before flying back, our last chance to score a wine for the upcoming #Winophiles was while grocery shopping with Pierre’s mom at Carrefour. We got a few for the coming months: Corse, Cahors, Rasteau, no problem. And the Southwest selection being huge, we thought there would be some Irouléguy, but we were wrong. So right there, standing in front of the wine wall, we googled and found one French website that listed another appellation as part of the Pays Basque: AOC Saint Mont. And wow how much choice there was for Saint Mont!
The département zipcode (32, the Gers) on the back label made us pause, but we went for it anyway. But you know, after reading more about Irouléguy and the Pays Basque, we have serious doubts this really fits. Geographically, it’s not that close and culturally, it doesn’t look like the marketing of the AOC Saint Mont itself has any references to Basque country. When we realized this, we tried to make a few calls around Tacoma, but nope, as could be expected. A distributor first said yes, but in fact, they had run out. The good news is that Irouléguy sells out.
So here we are celebrating Irouléguy’s revival with a good wine, a red blend made with two of the same grape varieties you find in Basque reds, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, but with some Fer Servadou as well. In Saint Mont whites, you’ll also find the same grapes as in white Irouléguy: Petit Courbu, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng. AOC Saint Mont is great, and produces almost ten times as much as Irouléguy, making the wines easier to find. But Basque? Maybe not. But that’s the closest we got, sorry. And the wine was very good, especially for the price of 12 euros. Full bodied, with a ripe berries profile, and noticeable tannin but a rather round, plush mouthfeel, it was very enjoyable and true to the style of many wines we love from the Southwest. In a way, it made us feel home.
Eggs in piperade
The food was Basque however! We didn’t fail the whole thing. We made a piperade, sauteeing onion, garlic, green and red peppers, with some Jambon de Bayonne.
Because, yes, victory, our gourmet Metropolitan Market’s deli counter had real Bayonne ham, something that only became legal to import in the US a few years ago. Hooray!
Once the vegetables were cooked, we made little gaps and cracked eggs in them.
We served this on top of pasta. All this worked very well with our Saint Mont red, and we can’t wait to do it again with Irouléguy.
So, in the end, we learned about Irouléguy, made a Basque dish, and accidentally learned about yet another Southwest appellation we’ll have to explore. Not a bad outcome. Cheers!
Thanks to Jeff Burrows from Food Wine Click, for hosting. If you read this in time, join the Twitter Chat (#Winophiles) on Saturday August 17, 8am PST. Check out the Winophiles posts to see their wines and food choices below. As you’ll see, Jurançon was included due to the difficulty to find Irouléguy in the US.
- Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “A Geography Snafu + Poulet Basquaise with Domaine Illaria Irouleguy 2016”
- Robin of Crushed Grape Chronicles shares “French Poets, Philandering Kings and little sweetness from Jurançon“
- Martin from Enofylz Wine Blog shares “A Match Made in Heaven; Jurançon Sec and Instant Pot Shrimp Boil”
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares “French Basque Rosé Paired with Sicilian Pasta“
- Oliver at In Taste Buds We Trust shares “Domaine Brana : Showing the Way in Irouléguy”
- Cynthia and Pierre at Traveling Wine Profs share “Celebrating the Revival of Irouléguy“
- Gwen from Wine Predator shares “Madiran: French Basque Wine of Pyrenees With Pixtos“
- Payal at Keep the Peas shares “Basque-ing in Irouléguy Wines and More”
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “Basque Chicken and Irouléguy, Perfect Winter Dish on the Hottest Day of the Summer”