Whilst looking at wines from the south west of France I came across an appellation that I had never encountered before. Being my usual inquisitive self I decided to look a little deeper and I must admit that I have fallen for this amazing AOC. It's name is Irouléguy and it lies in the Lower Navarre and is often referred to as "the smallest vineyard in France, the biggest in the Northern Basque Country".
This is an area of true breath taking beauty and it's an ancient land with dolmens and iron age castles dotting the steep slopes. In fact Basques can trace their roots back to the Stone Age and are one of Europe's most distinct people, fiercely proud of their ancestry and traditions.
Irouléguy lies at the Spanish border with France and the pass through the Pyrenees was used for centuries by Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Carolingians. The Roman road Ab Asturica Burdigalam trailed its way through the mountains linking the towns of Astorga in northern Spain to Bordeaux and the Basque section of the road was still in use when Napoleon invaded Spain between 1808 and 1814 (and was known for a time as the "Route of Napoleon").
In medieval times the Roman road became the Way of St. James used by pilgrims on their way to his shrine at the Santiago de Compostela. It was nicknamed the Milky Way by travellers, as it followed the Milky Way to the Atlantic Ocean. You can see scallop shells on many of the surrounding town's heraldic crests – these shells were the emblem of St James, and Christians making the pilgrimage often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him, and would present himself at churches, castles and abbeys where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. Probably he would be given oats, barley, and perhaps beer or wine.
The history of wine making in the area goes back to at least the 3rd century when the Romans commented on wine making in Irouléguy. It was boosted by the Augustinian monks of the Abbey of Roncesvalles in the 11th century who planted the first large scale vineyards to provide wine for pilgrims travelling along the Way of St James.
Irouléguy nearly came under British rule when Sancho the Wise and Richard Lionheart agreed to divide the country, (Richard the Lionheart married the Basque princess Berengaria of Navarre – she was quite a character and accompanied her husband on the Third Crusade). There is another Basque link to Britain – it seems that we are descended from them.
DNA evidence gathered in the last decade has shown that many Britons share a gene pool that can be traced back to the Basque. Around three-quarters of the Welsh, Irish, Scots and English can be traced to those who arrived from the Basque country between 7,500 and 15,000 years ago. It's a shame that we have not yet discovered more of their wines – something that will change I hope!
The vines in Irouléguy are grown on terraces between 100-400m above sea-level and although the soils vary, one of the chief characteristics of the soils in the region is a deep red coloration. The steep slopes can have inclines of up to 60° and this has led to the development of special growing and terracing techniques by Basque wine-growers with the vines grown on trellising. Red, rosé and white wines are made from Tannat (Bordelesa Beltza), Cabernet Franc (Axeria) and Cabernet Sauvignon (Axeria Handia), Courbu Blanc (Xuri Zerratia) Petit Manseng (Izkiriota Ttipia) and Gros Manseng (Izkiriota).
Of the 15 wine-growing municipalities in the Irouléguy region, only the following nine grow Irouléguy vines on a total of approx 210 hectares: Anhaux, Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, Ascarat, Irouléguy, Bidarrai, Ispoure, Jaxu and Saint-Martin-d'Arrossa. The wines are said to have a strong character, combining power and generosity - reds are said to have flavours of blackberry, liquorice and violet and the whites are fragrant and fresh.
Now, my mission is to taste one!