Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Day Visiting Wineries in the Basque Country (and an accidental, quickie pop into Spain)

The next day dawned cloudy and cool, to the point where I actually put on a T-shirt and sweater. I was looking forward to try the wines of this wild-looking land, where terraced vineyards clinging precariously to the sheer sides of the mountains were the norm. I had never really tried the wines of the region, whose Appelation d’Origine Controlée is known as Irouleguy. Here they grow mainly Tannat, as in the South-Central part of France, though here it traditionally made an even darker, more tannic beast of a wine. Lately, winemakers had managed to tame its aggressive aspects and were turning out interesting examples by blending Tannat with the two other reds of the area, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

So, I was looking forward to learning some new things.

Terraced Vineyards on the Sides of the Mountains
With Patrice’s list of wineries to visit in hand, I jumped in the car and roared out of town, ready to tackle the winding, mountainous roads. Only to discover that the first town on my list, Ispoure, butted up against Saint Jean Pied de Port. Within 3 minutes, I was in the small town and following signs uphill for the first producer I was planning on visiting, Domaine Abotia.

The car crested the top of a steep hill with vistas of the Pyrénées and there sat the house of Domaine Abotia. They were in full construction mode and wouldn’t be open for a while, so I looked at my list and took off for the biggest producer in the area, Domaine Brana (the one that had made the fabulous eau de vie de poire that had helped me sleep well…). After driving down into the main square of Ispoure, the road took off up another steep incline, with numerous switchbacks which kept me awake and my senses on the lookout. I did mention these were steep inclines, no?

After climbing high up the side of the mountain, I finally arrived at Domaine Etienne Brana. I was the only person there, and I was greeted by a nice-enough young lady who proceeded to taste me on all their wines. While I found all their wines technically correct, I wasn’t impressed overall by the quality, though one of the whites was quite nice and had nice acidity (something that the others lacked in spades). Yet the wines, for lack of a better term, had no soul. They were well-made, but there was nothing special, no oomph, nothing that made me go “hmmm”. I had been looking forward to this tasting, as I’d expected great things after tasting their eau de vie, but alas, it was not to be. I did, however, snag a bottle of that wicked pear liqueur…

My next stop, after making sure to drink several large glasses of water, was back down the hill, at Domaine Mourguy. Smack dab in the center of town, this cute little house offered views of the surrounding mountains, as well as several donkeys for the tourists. The winemaker, Florence Mourguy, greeted me and proceeded to show me around their immaculate winery. We eventually got to the tasting part of the visit, where we went through several vintages. The wines were very nice, well-made, approachable and, frankly, impressive. The use of oak was minimal, and the wines smooth despite the heavy grapes used.

Mourguy's Donkeys

Next, I went back to Domaine Abotia, where they had finally opened the tasting room and I was met by the winemaker’s mother. Got to love these small places! I was ready to go through their wines quickly as it was almost noon and I was hungry. However, the moment I tasted their white (their first vintage of the white, a blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu) I was fascinated. Whereas most of the whites in the area are fat and lack the acidity I like in my whites, this one had plenty to spare. This helped balance out the fat, thick mouthfeel of the fruit. Lovely!

The reds, however, while nicely fruity, were far too oaky for my tastes, so I thanked Mom and quickly left, driving back to Saint Jean Pied de Port for lunch. I had been told about a very good restaurant, Iratze Ostatua, which was on the main drag in town. I got there just as they opened to find a long room, open to a backyard with tables that was bordered by the town’s walls. Quite a nice view!

At 14 Euros, my Assiète Complète de Porc (complete dish of pork) was delicious, a big plate covered in various pork preparations, including pork rib confit (oh God, that was good!). The wine list was interesting and well-priced, with many of the better local producers showcased. I had a glass of the 2005 Ilarria for 5 Euros which was delicious with my dish.

Properly sated, I waddled back to the car, heading out of town towards Irouleguy. But as I made my way deeper into the brooding, misty mountains, I began to notice less and less traffic. After many twists and turns, I discovered a tiny town, where all the signs were in Spanish and Basque. What the…?

Oops! I was in Spain!

I quickly veered around the traffic circle and headed back the way I came, passing a large sign explaining, in Spanish, the various French speed limits. Yep, wrong turn.

I finally found Irouleguy, a lovely mountain town, with a flower-filled main square and many small streets. My first stop here would be Domaine Ilarria, a biodynamic producer whose wines were gaining renown. I met up with the winemaker, who proceeded to taste me on their entire selection of wines. They were delicious, showing a significant attention to quality.

After this, I hopped across the street to Domaine Arretxea, but sadly they were closed. As the great philosopher Homer once said, “D’oh!” From there I took a small back road that wound its way through the steep mountains to the next stop, Domaine Etxegarya. It was perched atop a foothill, surrounded by vines and mountains and nothing else. Two lovely young ladies greeted me, offering me their wines and a seat at an outdoor table. I accepted the invitation (it would be rude to do otherwise, non?) and spent the better part of an hour chatting with them, with views of the valleys and peaks. Oh, and the wines were pretty good too.

God, I love this business.

One of the daughters took me for a walk in the fields near the house, where ungrafted 125-year old Tannat vines clung to the sides of the hill with snaky roots. How cool to see ungrafted vines!

125-Year Old Ungrafted Vines

It was getting late at this point so I bade them a hearty farewell and an appreciative merci. Rolling down the mountain, I passed sheep and cows and pastures, with awesome views of the misty summits and the terraced vineyards around me. I finally arrived in the town of Saint Etienne de Baigorry, where the Cave des Vignerons de Baigorry, a cooperative, awaited me. While I’m not too keen on coops, sometimes they can surprise you with their quality. And I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised, as (in general) the wines were well-made, and the prices quite soft on the wallet.

I left Saint Etienne de Baigorry and headed back to Saint Jean Pied de Port. This was to be my last night in the region and I figured I’d spend it at the wine bar, La Cave des Etats de Navarre. Once again, I was greeted by Patrice and his lovely bartenders, who prepared a tasting plate of all the local cured meats and sausages, ribbons of aged ham interspersed with slices of reddish-orange chorizo and a basket of fresh bread. Oh, and of course, several glasses of the local wines. What a way to end my first visit to the region, with delicious food, good wines and beautiful bartenders!

When the bill came, I almost fell off my chair: 17 Euros.

I really enjoyed the Basque Country. The people are warm and friendly, the food is delicious, the wines getting better (in general), and the countryside quite beautiful. For me, it was one of those little discoveries that means I’ll probably be back someday.

HERE are some pictures of the Basque region.

Next, the Languedoc, from Carcassonne to Montpellier.



Abra said...

Mmm, I'll be there at the end of October, and I'll be sure to follow in your footsteps!

JMM said...


love your blog....