The Wine and Food of French Basque
In North America, San Sebastian holds the greatest fame in the Basque region of Spain and France. In Europe, however, the sea-side resort of St. Jean De Luz is regularly frequented. Whereas San Sebastian excels at food, St. Jean De Luz is the clear winner for wine (while also being no slouch for food given its small size). The wines of French Basque hold far greater interest and complexity than many realize and deserve greater attention. Sadly, few examples reach our shores.
Irouléguy is France’s southernmost wine region and many may find familiarity with less than stellar reds made by uninspiring co-ops that often give the region an unfair reputation. It is quintessentially basque, being in the heart of Basque country on the French side. A good producer, however, can show the potential of the region, particularly for the whites. The white grapes are the Gros and Petit Mansangs and Petit Courbu, just as in Jurancon. The delineation and profile of these grapes vary significantly from the luscious whites of Jurancon – instead offering more minerality and requiring more age to fully open.
The leading producer Arretxea’s white wines are the quintessential example of the potential of the region’s whites. The 2016 Hegoxuri that I tasted was distinctly a terroir wine requiring at least mid-term ageing and it is focused more on minerality and elegance than opulence and fruit. As such, the 2016 I tasted need a long exposure to oxygen before finally opening, but it is an impressive, intellectual, and collectable wine. It pairs well with simpler more austere preparations of seafood and fish – and finds a happy place alongside the St. Jean De Luz restaurant Kaiku’s menu. The winery itself is quite young, being founded in the late 1980’s by two Alsatians. It is now farmed biodynamically (having moved off of organic farming) Excellent. (Imported into the US by Kermit Lynch)
While renowned for its sweet wines, the white Jurancon Sec can be profoundly delicious and compelling. The best examples don’t exceed 30 euros and most very good wines are 15-25 euros. The permitted grapes are Gros and Petit Mansang. Camaralet, Lauzet, and Courbu. You can expect a bolder fruit profile compared to the minerally and citrus driven Irouleguy whites, with pineapple, white peach, and truffles. These wines fare incredibly well with seafood and vegetables and would be perfect wines for much Pacific Northwest cuisine.
The Jurancon is located a few dozen kilometres east of St. Jean De Luz, with the Pyrenees on its eastern flank and the Atlantic air flowing in from the west. About 1,000 hectares are under vine and the region has approximately 500 growers and 100 bottlers/producers. Jurancon Sec was created in 1975 in a region traditionally known for its sweet wines.
I tasted two great examples on my trip. First, Domaine Cauhapé’s “Geyser” 2016 was hugely concentrated and boisterous with big pineapple and spice flavours. Easy to drink on its own, or not. Cauhapé is often considered the benchmark estate for Jurancon. Their vines are planted on clay, sand, and stone, and the Geyser bottling is a blend of all five permitted varieties. Very Good+. (Imported into the US by Skurnik)
My personal favourite was the Camin Larredya “La Virada” 2016, tasted at the fantastic Restaurant L’Ocean, which showed finesse and elegance and greater balance than the Cauahpé. It remained more on the white peach side, with less pineapple and tropics. There was a touch of truffle, which I was told by our sommelier increases with age. Larredya is an extremely tiny producer not currently exported to North America that is making wines of the highest quality that in my view are among the best in the appellation. The vines are about 40 years old here and the majority are Gros and Petit Manseng with a tiny percentage of Courbu. The La Virada cuvee is the producer’s best dry white and comes from three small parcels planted on the combes of the vineyard (which is planted in an natural amphitheatre). Soils are clay and siliceux. This producer is biodynamic. Excellent.