Although it is regulated by the authorities of France and it is geographically located in Southwest France, the Irouléguy region is really part of the unrecognized Northern Basque Country. As is well known, the Basque Country is seeking to officially become its own country. If that happens it is not clear what the effect will be on the wine, but due to the Basque people's separate take on winemaking, the wines are already vastly different from anything else produced in France.
The Irouléguy vineyards are located in nine villages. With only around 500 acres under vine, the AOC is one of the smallest in Southwest France, but production is high at 400,000 cases of wine each year. Most of these wines are robust, Spanish-style reds.
Winemaking here dates back to the Roman era, but despite its long history the region was neglected after the phylloxera epidemic. Only relatively recently were the vineyards replanted and interest in the region renewed. Irouléguy became an AOC in 1970.
Climate and Viticulture
Since Irouléguy borders upon Spain and the people who live in the wine region are more Spanish than French in customs and traditions, the wines are very Spanish in style. The climate is very similar to that of, say, Rioja, but Irouléguy vineyards are planted on very steep hills, far steeper than those in most Spanish vineyards. The hills are made up of limestone, but clay and schist also exist in the soil.
Tannat, a very full, robust grape variety named for its high tannin content, is the main red grape here. In order to give the wines more international appeal, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are also allowed.
Due to the Irouléguy appellation's relative obscurity and location in the Basque Country, exporting of these wines is extremely rare. Three producers, however, make good wines that can be found in countries other than France. These are listed below.
- Domaine Arretxea: Generally considered the best producer in Irouléguy, Arretxea makes good whites and rosés and better reds. All the basic wines are good, but the cuvées offer higher quality. The Cuvée Hegoxuri, made from local grape Manseng, is around $20-$30; at the same price, the powerful, Tannat-based Cuvée Haitza offers more concentrated, powerful flavors.
- Domaine Brana: Brana's wines are considered everyman, but rise above the norm. The Rouge, which is varietal Tannat, is perfectly good, as is the Blanc, but the Ohitza is a more balanced blend (of Cabernet and Tannat) and is easier to find. Brana makes several other good wines.
- Domaine Illaria: Illaria's basic wines are usually inexpensive and good. But the $20 Tannat cuvée Bixintxo is yet better.