Michel and Thérèse Riouspeyrous craft some of the most exciting, singular wines in France—wines that tell a story about a land and a people. Basque country, in the heart of the Pyrenees just miles from the Spanish border, feels drastically removed from the rest of France, thanks to its unique culture and landscape. Haitza, Arretxea’s top bottling of red from the steep mountain slopes of Irouléguy, features Tannat and some Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in barrel and built to last. Pitch-black in color with dense, earthy tannins and suggestions of wild forest berries and spice, this bottling is the Pyrenees’ answer to Clape’s Cornas and Tempier’s Cabassaou. And old vintages—you can’t help but think, “Why didn’t I put down more of this one?”
Just after losing his father, Michel Riouspeyrous was raised by his grandfather, with whom he worked the family vineyards. He gravitated towards studies in Agronomy before the mandatory service sent him to Africa. While in Africa, Michel met Thérèse, an Alsatian who was on vacation. They married and returned to Michel’s home in the Southwest. In 1989, they started their own domaine by renting 2 ha. The decision to farm organically came instantaneously to Michel. Once certified as organic, they pushed on towards biodynamics. For the couple, it just translates into a more authentic expression. A mere glimpse of their vineyards, amid beautiful wildflowers, set against the Pyrénées, makes it easy to see what inspired such a decision.
Tucked away beneath Bordeaux and buffeted by the Pyrenees to the south, this expansive region of France, commonly known as the Southwest, is home to a diverse number of viticulture and gastronomic traditions as well as cultures. Though Cahors might be the most well known (and easiest to pronounce) appellation from the Southwest, the importance and influence of French Basque culture cannot be underestimated. Irouléguy, the primary appellation of the Basque region of France produces full-bodied, hearty red wines, produced from Tannat grape (known for its tannic qualities). Dry whites from Irouléguy are also produced from Petit and Gros Manseng. Northeast of Irouléguy is the sweet wine-producing appellation of Jurançon. These moelleux wines made from Petit and Gros Manseng have a storied history in France, from being the first wine region to have a vineyard classification, which dates back to the 154th century, to being preferred wine of royalty dating back to the 16th century as well as the French poet Colette.
Every three or four months I would send my clients a cheaply made list of my inventory, but it began to dawn on me that business did not pick up afterwards. It occurred to me that my clientele might not know what Château Grillet is, either. One month in 1974 I had an especially esoteric collection of wines arriving, so I decided to put a short explanation about each wine into my price list, to try and let my clients know what to expect when they uncorked a bottle. The day after I mailed that brochure, people showed up at the shop, and that is how these little propaganda pieces for fine wine were born.—Kermit Lynch
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