The Wines & Gastronomy of the South of France – The South West

Pays Basque & Béarn

Bordeaux marks the northern limits of France’s “Hidden Corner,” its 5th largest wine growing region, and the least populated. The region is divided into four sub-regions, each distinctive in character, climate and grape varieties. The four sub-regions are the Bergerac and Dordogne River, Garonne and Tarn, Lot River, and the Pyrénées, inside of which there are an array of communal and village appellations (AOP) Appellation d’origins Protégée. The Bergerac and Dordogne wine growing region lie just south of Bordeaux and share the same Atlantic influence, although it can be slightly warmer. The Garonne and Tarn wine growing region is named after its two major rivers and is located further east towards Toulouse, in the Midi Pyrénées. The climate here is more varied with the western portion influenced by the Atlantic, while the eastern portion is more Mediterranean with less rain and warmer temperatures year around. The oldest vineyards in this region are in the Gaillac appellation, west of Albi. The Lot River region is centered on the 2000 year-0ld village of Cahors, to the south of the beautiful village of Sarlat-la-Caneda and north of Toulouse. The Cahors AOC is the most famous of the sub-regions and the original home of Malbec. The vineyards here are on rocky slopes and the region enjoys the most sunshine. The wines from the sub-region of the rugged Pyrénées, the mountain range that divides France and Spain, are typically more rustic and artisanal then others in the Southwest. The most famous AOP here is Madiran, that has been popular for centuries due to it’s broody black fruits, spice and silky tannins. The village of Madiran is located in the gently rolling countryside of Gascony, in the Hautes-Pyrénées.

Vineyards around Irouléguy

Wine Touring in the Pyrénées

The Irouléguy AOP in the Pays Basque lies in the lush green rolling hills along the northern slopes of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques boarding the Basque Country (País Vasco) of northern Spain, and produces fruity, tannic reds, full-bodied, tangy whites and intensely fruity and deeply colored rosés. It is one of the smallest wine growing regions of France with only 14 vineyards covering 240 hectares and some 15 villages, with winemaking here dating back more then 2000 years. Wine making here followed a path similar to other parts of France, first being introduced by the Romans and later developed in part by the monks of Roncesvalles, who made wine for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, following the Route of Saint James to Galicia. The appellation, granted in 1970, includes the villages of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the traditional starting point of the Camino de Santiago’s French Route, Saint-Étienne-de Baïgorry, with its half-timbered home and ancient Roman footbridge, and the heart of the region, the tiny, classic Basque village of Irouléguy, with its white houses with red shutters and terra-cotta tiled roofs. For more information on the area, read Eric Asimov’s “Splendor in Solitude“.

Looking out over Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port from the vineyards of Domaine Brana

Wineries in the Irouléguy include Michel and Thérèse Riouspeyrou’s Maison Arretxea, a favorite of chef Henri Amestoy, and the larger estate of Domaine Ilarria, in an old Bas-Navarre house that has been in the family for centuries, with its 10-hectares of vineyards, can both be found in Irouléguy, just down the road from the small Église Ste Marie, the village church. Domaine Abotia, dating from 1865, when they raised pigs, planted it’s first vineyards in 1980. World renowned winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet’s Herri Mina, the Irouléguy’s most sought-after wine. La Cave d’Irouléguy, the Irouléguy Wine Cellar, is the major wine growing cooperative in the AOC. The Wine Cellar can be found on the D-15 to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just outside of Saint Etienne de Baigorry. Another interesting stop near by is Domaine Gutizia, in the Leisparz quarter, where winemakers Cécile Sabah and Sébastien Clauzel began their adventure in 2011. Peio Espil’s Ilarria Bixintxo, who until 1990, was only one of two wine producers in the Irouléguy. The 4-hectare Domaine Etxegaraya, a few minutes drive from the small hamlet of Irouléguy, is in the hands of the 5th generation of the Hillau family, who have farmed the land since 1850. It’s one of our favorites. Domaine Ameztia is in a 17th-century typical Basque farmhouse, located a few minutes drive south of the D-15 in the tiny hamlet of Guermiette, where shepherd-winemaker Jean Louis Costera produced his first vintage AOC Irouléguy in 2001. The 4th-generation family estate of Domaine Brana sits on the slopes overlooking the village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. In 1974 they opened the distillery, where they produce their top rated Eau de vie. Well worth a visit.

Looking south to the Pyrénées

The Jurançon wine region is located east of the Irouléguy, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, and whe combined with the Irouléguy, makes for an interesting day tour of the area from the coast. Winemakers here produce two styles of white wine, the classic Jurançon, the celebrated sweet wine which was used to christen the future king, Henry IV, in the 16th-century, and their Jurançon Sec, a deliciously fragrant dry white produced from vineyards tucked away in the sun filled hillsides of Southwest France. 

Enjoying a plate of traditional Axoa at Restaurant Pottoka in Espelette

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