Welcome to Basque country, where Michel and Thérèse Riouspeyrous of Domaine Arretxea biodynamically farm Irouléguy’s steep mountain slopes just miles from the Spanish border. There is a lot of wine here: Tannat and a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon give a powerful beast built for the long haul, yet delightfully balanced at only 12% alcohol. Pitch-black in color with dense, earthy tannins and suggestions of wild forest berries and spice, their Haitza 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.
I want you to realize once and for all: Even the winemaker does not know what aging is going to do to a new vintage; Robert Parker does not know; I do not know. We all make educated (hopefully) guesses about what the future will bring, but guesses they are. And one of the pleasures of a wine cellar is the opportunity it provides for you to witness the evolution of your various selections. Living wines have ups and downs just as people do, periods of glory and dog days, too. If wine did not remind me of real life, I would not care about it so much.
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