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Irouleguy - The Smallest AOC in France
Article Category - Food
A Vineyard in the Heart of The Mountains
Fifty kilometres to the South East of Bayonne at the foot of the pass d’Ibaneta (Roncevaux) at the heart of ‘Le Pays Basque’ (The Basque Country). Irouleguy is a little village with 200 inhabitants, part of the commune of St Etienne de Baigorry in Basse Navarre, one of the three French Basque provinces. It is one of the eight communes which make up the valley of Baigorry an area rich in history.
This village has given it’s name to the wine Irouleguy and the vineyards which today cover the sunny slopes of the Basque mountains.
The date for the beginning of wine production here is shrouded in the mists of time. The vines were present before the beginning of the Christian era and it is thought that wine making started with the Roman occupation of the area (3rd century AD).
Thanks to the presence of the powerful monastic orders at Roncevaux and their role as educators within the world of the peasant farmers a culture based round the production of cereals and vines slowly evolved.
By 1120 the Abbey of Roncevaux was an agricultural centre with vines, apple trees and walnuts being grown. The monks were the beneficiaries of a technical education adapted to the rural life of those times. The vineyards were privileged because of their supposed medical benefits and as comfort to the Pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela ‘the way of St James’.
In the 17th century, the Viscount d’Urdos who lived in a fortified Chateau to the North of St Etienne de Baigorry created a culture of vine growing on the steep slopes in the area and organised the growers of the valley. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for this as each Basque wished to produce and drink his own wine. From then on the vineyards spread until they surrounded each village and covered the slopes of the mountains, of Jara, Arradoy, and Iparla.
The 18th century brought a great success in part linked to the presence of mines in the area. The miners created a strong local base for wine consumption which then was spread by the large local port of Bayonne. The trade in wine prospered, spreading as far as Germany, England, and the Netherlands.
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century marked the beginning of the decline of the Irouleguy vineyards. There were several causes, the mines became worked out, the disease phylloxera, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phylloxera . The war of 1914 1918 killed so many of the young men who tended the vines with their picks, buttressing the slopes at the sides. All these events combined to produce a general disillusion with the tradition of viticulture.
After the second world war, France as a whole produced too much wine and had introduced measures to curb production. It was then a great risk, to say the least, when a group of local agricultural entrepreneurs (I have to say visionaries) under the direction of Alexander Bergouignan created the wine cooperative of St Etienne de Baigorry. On the 23rd January 1953 the wines of Baigorry gained the status A.O.V.D.Q.S for the area comprising the communes of Anhaux , Irouleguy, and St Etienne de Baigorry.
On the 29th October 1970 the wines of Irouleguy gained the status of an A.O.C. The area of production was limited to 15 communes around St Etienne de Baigorry, Bidarray and St Jean Pied de Port (see map).
Between the years of 1980 and 1990 there was large programme of re-plantation which has taken the area planted within the appellation from 65 hectares in 1980 to 185 hectares by 1996 (65% on terraced slopes), and now over 200 hectares. This is still a very small area compared to the over 1000 hectares reputedly under cultivation in the early 1800's
The vines types grown within Irouleguy appellation are based around those decided in 1953, Mansengs, Courbus, and Semillon for the whites and Tannat, Bordelais and Cabernet for the reds.
In 1970, the date of the inception of the A.O.C. Irouleguy a new bylaw fixed the types for the white wines to Courbus and Mansengs and for the red wines to Cabernet and Tannat.
Tannat is the archetypal vine of the Pyrenees, the principal characteristics being, a dark green vertical stem, with side branches that are red in the region of the knots and brown in where exposed to the sun. The tendrils are green, thin and small, the smaller branches have brown shoots and dark knots. The bunches of grapes are supported by a long stem, and are cylindrical in shape. Tannat grows quickly in spring, and matures in September. The leaves turn totally red in Autumn. This vine gives a strongly alcoholic wine, deeply coloured, and tannic. After aging for several years it develops a bouquet reminiscent of raspberry.
The Requirements of the Appellation for the Training of the Vines.
The Appellation of Irouleguy is based on a maximum annual production of 50 hectolitres of wine for each hectare of producing vines. To control the vines two systems of training are permitted. The first ‘in trellis’ is used in several properties spread around the area. The vine has to be planted with stakes three metres high at a distance of 1.40 between each vine stock which is usually supported by a short stake. The branches are grown to a height of 2 metres and supported by steel wires.
The second method, practised more often, is in ‘guyot’ single or double. The stock is grown to a height of 45 centimetres. Stakes of two metres in height are placed at distance between a metre and one metre forty centimetres With three rows of training wires. For ‘guyot’ simple one stem is allowed to grow along the training wires, and for ‘guyot’ double two stems are trained along the wires
In other articles I have remarked that a hallmark of Basque agriculture is that, because of the great restriction placed on them by the terrain, basque farmers have had to concentrate on producing quality products rather than quantity. Nowhere could this maxim be better observed in action than on the steep terraced slopes of the Iroulequy vineyards.
The growing of vines in lines along steep slopes is technically possible when the slope is less than 10%. It is a measure of Basque tenacity when you realise that the slopes found in the vineyards of Irouleguy are frequently around 60%. To cultivate vines on such steep slopes requires the use of different techniques of terracing. Each terrace is given a slight slope of 2 to 5% with a little shoulder on the outer edge to contain the streams of water which would otherwise cause erosion and create ravines.
The countryside of the Iroulequy vineyards has been subjected to a form of planting used in many mountain areas. When initially planted vines are narrowly spaced and then little by little thinned out allowing those remaining to grow bigger. Within 10 years of the original planting the terraces transform the steep slopes into productive vineyards. Grass is permitted to grow between the vines to help stabilise the slopes and retain moisture.
Harvesting and Winemaking.
The red, roseˊ and white wines belonging to the Irouleguy A.O.C. must be made from grapes at full maturity with a minimum alcoholic strength, before any enrichment, of 10%.
The bylaw of 29th October 1970 relating to the A.O.C. of Irouleguy states the conditions of maturity for an area to be harvested to be the same as the those for Bordeaux.
The committee controlling the growing visits the growing areas four times during the season.. (Flowering, grape growth start, and twice before picking.) The grape quality is ranked before picking , the grapes are picked by hand and the degree of maturity is watched very closely. On arrival at the winery the grapes undergo a new control procedure during which the grapes are cut from the stem, pressed, and put into the fermentation tanks.
The Cabernet and Tannat grapes are fermented separately after cutting from the stem. The winery has a temperature control system which gives complete control of the temperature of fermentation.
For some Roseˊs, after 8 to 10 hours of maceration in the round for grapes which are intended for red wine a slow bleeding off of the juice is performed (about 10% of the vat contents)
to collect the must which, after fermentation, gives these roseˊ wines the name ‘wines of a night’. This roseˊ accounts for 35% of the roseˊ production. The remaining must is used for red wine.
For the red wines maceration takes place before fermentation. Fermentation takes place for 8 to 18 days, this varies with the year and the concentration of alcohol found. When the required results are achieved the wine is removed from the fermentation vats.
The wine is then moved to the stock tanks and remains there for the winter. During this period there is a ‘malolactic fermentation which gives a further rounding to the wine.
The red wine ‘Domaine de Mignaberry is placed in oak casks for most of the maturing period, but follows the same clearly established rules.
A medium harvest will acquire the optimum quality after about 4 years of aging but they are strong enough and agreeable to drink after 2 years.
The Cave Co-operative St Etienne de Baigorry. The Winery of the Basque Country.
Since 1990 the concept of quality, always an essential part of Basque agriculture, has become an even more serious preoccupation. To achieve this a Committee of Wine Growers has been created with the objective of controlling and classifying production. The winemakers of the cooperative are paid under a schedule which places the criteria of quality over and above that of the once sacrosanct criteria of kilo-degree. This new concept implicitly places the producer and the equipment within the quality controls. The policy is to select the grapes in each area and each Domain within a yield of permitted production. This is now set voluntarily at 36hl/ha. and not the 50hl/ha permitted by the AOC regulations. This voluntary restriction has allowed the wines to make a leap in quality which is widely recognised and as the table below shows has gained allowed the co-operative to gain many awards in recent years.
Today, the control of quality can be explained equally by the traceability of the grapes arriving at the winery just as much as the final production of the wines.
At the same time some valuable investments were made in 1977, notably the replacement of the fermenting and maceration vats. This permitted the winery to adopt the most modern techniques of wine making and therefore improve the quality of the wines. Further improvements have been made recently with the addition of two modern pneumatic presses.
This improvement in quality that has taken place in the running of the winery has meant that for several years the winery has won prize medals at wine competitions all over France. I list below the medals gained by the six wines stocked by FrenchFoodFreaks over the past five years.
Gold Silver Bronze
Red Domaine de Mignaberry 5 3 4
Red Omenaldi 5 2 6
Red Gorri d’Ansa 4 3
Rose Argi d’Ansa 1 3 1
White Xuri d’Ansa 3 2 5
White Anderena 1 2 1
The above is a simplified list for the wines stocked by FrenchFoodFreaks, a full list is shown on the page below. Even this list does not include all the medals won by this tiny appellation because it only shows the wines of the Cave Co-operative and doesn’t include those won by the independent Iroulequy Domaines such as Brana and Abbotia. Altogether quite a success story for the ‘smallest appellation in France.’
Map of the Irouleguy Appelation
Full List of Medals Cave Co-operative d'Irouleguy