If south-west France is as far as you can delve into La France Profonde without going astray, then Irouléguy is the wine region at the end of the rainbow. Little heard of, and even more rarely seen, this tiny little beauty spot, with only 240 hectares to its name, is tucked so far into the French Pyrenees that it almost spills into the Atlantic Ocean. Yet what it lacks in size and celebrity, it more than makes up for in the character of its wine.
Irouléguy is essentially Basque – the names of estates such as Arretxea, Gutizia, Abotia, Illaria, Brana and Etxegaraya, testify to this. Although tiny in size, Irouléguy groups around 50 different producers, made up of a co-operative of around 40 growers, along with another 10 independent wine estates. Its three main soil types, sandstone, dolerites and limestone, are home to some typically characterful Pyrenean grape varieties. Tannat, the grape of Madiran, is the main red variety, albeit tempered with cabernet sauvignon and franc. The three white varieties are distinctly local: gros manseng, petit manseng and petit courbu.
As one of the Wine Gang group that tasted a selection of wines from the south-west, I was able to visit Irouléguy earlier in the year and testify that, although it may be off-piste, its existence is genuine. Wet and windy at lunchtime, this mountainous region put on its fair face that same afternoon, turning bright and sunny. It’s this mountain sunshine combined with proximity to the Atlantic and dry conditions for harvesting the local grapes at autumn that give the wines their distinctive identity.
The whites tend to vibrancy and purity of expression often with the mineral undertones of the gros manseng and the exotic, honeyed quality of petit manseng grapes. Smoky, full-bodied and bone dry, the 2011 Domaine Brana Blanc, £17, The Wine Society, is in this mould. Thérèse and Michel Riouspeyrous’ 2011 Domaine Arretxea, Hegoxuri, £22.30, Cave de Pyrène, is an intensely-flavoured dry white, while the 2012 Irouléguy Blanc Xuri, £12.95, Cave de Pyrène, is crisp, bracingly refreshing and dry.
The tannat can be harsh in the wrong hands but generations of working with the variety and blends with the cabernets of Bordeaux yield distinctive mountain wines. I enjoyed the 2009 Domaine Brana Rouge, Harri Gorri, £12.50, The Wine Society, and the green peppery 2011 Domaine Arretxea, £15.30, Caves de Pyrène and the excellent 2009 Domaine Ilarria, Bixintxo, £24.75, Yapp Bros, a red showing a rich dark red fruits quality framed by spicy oak and savoury gamey notes.