The pastoral appellation of Irouléguy stretches along a small band of hillside vineyards in the Pyrenees, in the extreme south-west of France, within the French Pays Basque. The region sits at more than 400 m/1,300 ft above sea level, with the west strongly influenced by the Atlantic. The vines are protected from northern winds and receive more sunshine than most French wine regions. The vineyards face south and are protected from the wet weather coming off the ocean by the surrounding mountain peaks. The cool and wet springs are balanced by warm and dry conditions into early fall that allow for the full ripening of grapes into October.
Practically all of the vineyards in Irouléguy were wiped out from Phyloxera over a century ago. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, in 1906, there were only 470ha/1,160 acres of vines, but they were largely abandoned until AOC status was granted in 1970. By the early 1990s, vineyard area started to expand again, and by 2012 there were about 60 producers farming 232 ha of vineyards scattered on soils of limestone, schist, gravel, red clay, and iron-rich red sandstone. The vineyards of Irouléguy are planted almost exclusively to red grapes; the local Tannat grape and/or Cabernet Franc must constitute between 50-90% of the reds with the rest made up of Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines are made from the indigenous varieties Courbu, Petit Courbu, Gros Manseng, and Petit Manseng.
Eric Asimov of the New York Times says this about the region: Vineyards are not a dominant feature here, as they are in so many wine regions. They are simply one facet of an agricultural way of life, as perhaps they were centuries ago in those other places before wine became an industry. And yet the handful of excellent estates that do focus on wine, like Domaine Ilarria, Maison Arretxea, and Domaine Brana, are resolute, seeing it more as a calling than a business. (CFW interjection: we know the feeling).
The Brana family started as wine and spirits negociants in Pays Basque in 1897. Husband and wife Etienne and Adrienne Brana decided in 1974 to plant a pear orchard and build a distillery that would focus on pears, as well as local plums and raspberries. Etienne then taught himself the art of distillation. When the Branas planted their 20 hectare vineyard in 1984, they were the first to do so on a meaningful scale. Etienne tragically died in 1992, a year before the completion of their winery, built into the steep hills above Saint Jean Pied de Port. In addition to his wife, he left behind their two children; Martine and Jean would carry on their father’s legacy: Jean took over the vineyards and winemaking after studying oenology and interning with Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker at Chateau Petrus. Martine took over the sourcing of fruit and the distilling; her Eaux-de-Vies are considered to be amongst the best in France.
The vines at Brana are planted along very narrow terraces that have been cut out of the remarkably steep hillsides. Like most of the region, all harvest is by hand. Jean’s farming philosophy is best described as bio-diverse. He gave up his certification of organic farming because the treatment of his vines required an application of copper that produced toxicity in his soils. He tried biodynamics, but opted instead to take a minimalist approach that encouraged the natural flora and fauna to co-exist with the vines, and the domaine is now certified HVE (High Environmental Value). The result has been the return of insects and birds that hadn’t been seen in the vineyard for years, as well as the return of 110 plant species that co-habitate with the vines. To celebrate this development, Jean redesigned all the wine labels so that each features one of the indigenous birds now found in the vineyards.
Ilori, the Basque word for daffodil, is Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng fermented with indigenous yeasts after a gentle maceration on the skins. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and rests “sur lie” until bottling the following spring.
This gentle maceration on the skins results in an ephemeral aroma and texture that has both density and a floaty quality. The nose is at the same time very present and discreet; it announces the strength of the wine and its aromatic delicacy of dried flower and herbs (chamomile and tarragon), citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemon, bergamot) and and exotic fruit.
It is a white wine of substance without heaviness, with a slight grip of tannin that gives it presence. It can be both delicate or muscular, depending on the pairing. It is a versatile food wine; pair it with fish and crustaceans, simply seasoned, or in derived broths, with rice or pasta. Roasted poultry with fresh herbs and mushrooms in cream sauce would be lovely, though possibly a touch heavy for the season. But when you want cream sauce, you want cream sauce. And obviously, it would be perfect with Basque sheep’s milk cheeses and some salty olives.
Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng. Dried flower and herbs (chamomile and tarragon), citrus f..
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