Entering French Basque Country

Paul Blow

Driving southwest from the dry, rocky hills of the Languedoc, there are two announcements that we’re entering Basque Country. One is unmistakable: the imposing, jagged peaks of the Pyrenees mountains. The other is unpronounceable: Road signs start to come in two languages, both French and the imposing mess of Zs, Xs, Ts, and vowels that is Basque, a tongue whose origin confounds scholars by bearing no relation to any other in the vicinity. While Spanish Basque Country is kept in the news because of the separatist group ETA, as well as by the thriving gastronomic scene of San Sebastián and the famous white wine called Txakoli, French Basque Country gets much less play. But there’s a lot here, especially on the wine side.

Around the often-overlooked town of Pau, one of the most beautiful in France, are a few of the more interesting wines of the region. The AOC of Madiran, north of town, is famous for the stoutness of its red wines, which are made mainly from the Tannat grape. Traditionally a tannic, chewy red wine that takes years to even approach being drinkable, Madiran seems an apt red for the rugged character and the hearty, game-heavy cuisine of the region. Deeply flavored of black currants with some heady aromas of the woods, Madiran will probably never be known for its suaveness, but it can be quite supple. In the past 25 years, producers have learned how to moderate the tannins somewhat. Many of the improvements to the Madiran style are credited to Alain Brumont of Châteaux Bouscassé and Montus, but I’m also particularly fond of a domaine that learned from his methods, Domaine Berthoumieu, whose top wine, Cuvée Charles de Batz, is a great example of what modern Madiran can be.

Pacherenc du Vic Bilh is adjacent to Madiran and produces white wines that must be 60 percent composed of the varieties Courbu and Petit Manseng. They’re usually semisweet or sweet, but Pacherenc du Vic Bilh Sec, or dry, can be very refreshing, with strong and alluring aromas of white flowers, vegetation, pears, and citrus rind.

Just south of Pau is the appellation of Jurançon, whose vineyards are splayed out on a series of steep, bounding foothills dwarfed by the nearby Pyrenees. The area is green and lush with a mild, cool climate—a standoff between mountain winds and breezes from the Atlantic, less than an hour away. The grapes here are Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng, and the wines can be sweet or dry. While the sweet wines are lovely, the dry ones are some of the great overlooked whites of France. They have a wonderful firmness and brightness, with a fresh, “green” flavor reminiscent of freshly cut herbs and apple skin. Their core seems as structured with mineral as the jagged, rocky nubs of the Pyrenees in the distance. Two producers to seek out are the well-regarded Clos Uroulat and the lesser-known Domaine Lapeyre. The wines are as well priced as they are well made.

A final appellation, Irouléguy, rises from the steep hills around the quintessentially Basque town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, which lies about 50 miles west of Pau. Most of the wine from here is red or rosé, made from a combination of Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. While no one would accuse Irouléguy of being fine wine, it does make a nice country quaffer. The vineyards rise on some steeply terraced hillsides, stretching high above the towns. The wine is worth a try, for instance Domaine Ilarria. Not too tannic or big in stature, it tastes of dried cherries with a hint of thyme and freshly tilled earth.

None of these are wines you’ll find terribly often, but they’re worth exploring when you come across them because they’re unique. Just as this part of France, though not as famous as many neighboring regions, is truly something unto itself.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.