Friday, June 20, 2008

The Great Irouléguy Tasting & a Guest Blogger!

The what? I know, I know, you are probably wondering what the heck is that word up there. It's the name of a region in the Basque area of the South of France, in the Pyrenées mountains separating France from Spain. If you want to pronounce it, imagine it's spelled "Ee-Roo-Lay-Guee" and you'll be close enough. I had visited this area in July of 2007 (links here and here) and found the food and wines to be rustic yet delicious, and the people warm if a bit standoffish at first.

Vines here are grown on steep mountainsides that have been terraced, which is quite a sight when you imagine the work necessary to prune and pick the grapes. How steep? Take a look at this:

and this:

If the mountains were much higher, you could probably turn some of these into ski resorts!

At the instigation of fellow wine-lover Zachary Ross, an Irouléguy tasting was organized at a wonderful Tribeca restaurant, La Sirene. The food was excellent and the reception warm, so I'll be sure to head back soon. Zach's notes and knowledge of the wines was so impressive that I decided to let him be my very first Guest Blogger, something I'll do from time to time when I'm too busy or too lazy to write anything (probably that latter one). So without more of my babbling, here is Zach's write-up:

An intrepid group of NYer with obscurist interests gathered last night for one of the more esoteric tastings of recent vintage. The theme was wines from Irouléguy, a tiny appellation in the Pays Basque of Southwest France. Actually, I believe Irouléguy is one of the smallest AOC in France, with a local cooperative and only about 10 independent producers. Of those, about five of them are imported to the United States. We had wines from four of them last night, which is pretty good considering several of them had to be sourced from out of state. It's no big deal, though, because none of the wines from Irouléguy will break the bank; the most expensive wine we had (not including shipping) was about $30.

I had a great time tasting (er, drinking, I have a headache today) all these wines and meeting Ben, Michel, Ramon, and Izzy, and seeing Cliff once again. The cassoulet was pretty darn good, too. Thanks to everyone for making this happen.

It wasn't really a night for note-taking (a couple of us tried but that seemed to fall by the wayside as the bottle count got higher), but I did take away these impressions:

We started with two whites. Irouléguy whites are generally composed of the troika of Southwestern varieties, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. These were no exception. From what I have read, white wines all but disappeared from Irouléguy until about 40 years ago. Both whites cried for food, and seemed to go pretty well with the various seafood appetizers we ordered.

-2005 Domaine Arretxea "Hegoxuri" -- the most expensive wine of the night. Very acidic with good body, very small fruit presence, a sort of resinous pine note, and a tart, cranberry-like finish (Izzy called that). I really dig this wine, most of the others preferred the Ilori.

-2005 Domaine Brana "Ilori" - minerally nose, very fresh, again an acid bomb but with more sprightly fruit (but not that much fruit) and a somewhat lighter body. Nicely balanced and a great summer white. About $17.

Then we moved on to the reds. These were all composed variously of Tannat, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

-2005 Domaine Brana "Ohitza" -- Brana's entry-level red wine. Tannat with Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon. Brana apparently prefers Cab Franc to Tannat, alleging that Cab Franc has been planted in Irouléguy longer than the signature Tannat (I have no idea if he is right or not), so I believe that in this wine there is more Tannat than his upper-level wines. Fresh with red fruits, earth, some leafy tobaccoish notes, a little spice, no sense of oak. Good.

-2004 Domaine Brana "Harri Gorri" -- the wine that started it all. It was a note I posted on this wine that prompted the offline. This is one step up from the Ohitza, and as such I believe it has less Tannat -- just the minimum 40% the AOC rules specify. (It's 35% Cab Franc and 25% Cab Sauv). This has more heft and is less rustic than the Ohitza, sturdy with fruit toward the blacker end of the spectrum. Cliff sensed oak, and the wine is aged in barrels that have been used twice to five times. I like this wine, though of the three Branas, I think I like the white Ilori best.

-2005 Domaine Etxegaraya -- Etxegaraya's basic bottling, 60% Tannat and 40% Cab Franc, mostly from younger vines. Youthful purple, fruiter than most the other wines of the night, with (to me) obvious Cab Franc leafy/vegetal/tobacco notes.

-2005 Domaine Etxegaraya Cuvée Lehengoa -- 80% Tannat from 125-year-old, pre-phylloxera vines, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. For me, this stood head and shoulders above the rest of the wines, and a quick canvass of the fellows to my left and right confirmed that assessment. Very dark, serious, and monumentally sculpted wine of incredible depth and structure. One of my favorite wines of any kind. I've already gone through at least a case of it.

-2005 Domaine Ilarria -- 70% Tannat, 20% Cab Franc, 10% Cab Sauv. Nice wine that somehow didn't distinguish itself much from the pack. Appropriately sturdy as a companion to the cassoulet.

-2005 Domaine Arretxea -- I think this is 50% Tannat and probably the rest Cab Franc, though I am not sure. This was one of the best of the night, a very well structured red with excellent freshness and suave tannins.

-2005 Domaine Arretxea "Haitza" -- hats off to Ramon for bringing this back from France and to this offline. Arretxea's attempt at a grand vin, the Haitza is 60% Tannat, 40% Cab Sauv, and, very unusual for Irouléguy, aged in some new oak. Very dark and brooding wine, the oak treatment is obvious, making it more like the bigger wines from Madiran like Montus/Bouscassé and Berthoumieu. I think I prefer oakless (or used-oak) Irouléguy (the Lehengoa being the exemplar of that style), but the massive Tannat can wear its oak well, and with this Haitza the use of new oak to me seemed judicious and measured. I took home what remained and will check it out again tonight.

And, last but not least, Michel's supersecret dessert, er, wine? Michel cautioned us to pour lightly, good thing he did because this stuff was very strong. The nose spoke of marc or eau-de-vie or grappa etc., but after tasting and sifting through the impressions, a very strong taste of fresh pears came through. Bingo.

-Domaine Brana Poire William -- 44% abv. Brana actually produces a number of spirits, including a marc d'Irouléguy, a liqueur de framboise, liqueur de cacao, and others. This pear eau-de-vie was excellent, poignantly and deliciously pearish without undue alcohol burn. Michel picked this up on his trip to Irouléguy last year; thanks for breaking this out!

So, how about a big round of applause for Zach and his note-taking abilities (mine were severaly handicapped by the delicious cassoulet which was taking all my attention). Thanks Zach!

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