In the vineyards of Irouleguy

Irouleguy Oct 2014  sheep vines

Basque sheep grazing among the vines in Irouleguy.

The tiny Basque town of  Irouleguy and its red roofed church are perched in the foothills of the Atlantic Pyrenees almost within sight of the Bay of Biscay.  The vineyards that make up the AOC encircle the town, lining the steeply sloping hills that climb away south towards Spain.  Some are at elevations over 100o feet, making them some of the highest vines in the Pyrenees.

Entering Irouleguy.

Entering Irouleguy.

Irouleguy's church, with its whitewashed walls and red tile roof, is pure Basque.

Irouleguy’s church, with its white washed walls and red tiled roof, is pure Basque.

Taking advantage of a gorgeous October morning, Sheila and I recently hiked for several hours in and around the area, following a path that included winding country roads, forest paths, hidden trails through the hedgerows between fields and finally through the vineyards themselves.

Irouleguy Oct 2014 strange more vines

Irouleguy is the principle wine of the French Basque countries (which, incidentally, makes ordering wine in a Basque restaurant pretty easy…just pick red, white or rose, its all Irouleguy).  The grapes grown here include Tannat, Cabernet Franc, a certain amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, and Gros et Petit Manseng.  However, with the grape harvest already past, it would have been hard for us to see any difference between the vines…they were all leggy, overtall and beginning to turn yellow as the October nights turned colder.

Backroad in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Back road in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I found this particular hike in a book produced by the Department of the Pyrenees Atlantique.  The advantage of these trails is that they have been laid out and marked by the Department, so that, even when they pass through private property, you don’t feel as if someone is about to run you off their land.  Thus, we were able to actually walk through vineyards and farmlands that I would have hesitated to enter without the encouragement of the guide.

Part of the trail was inside a row of trees and hedges separating two fields.

Part of the trail was inside a row of trees and hedges separating two fields.

Irouleguy Oct 2014 door

Old wooden door with a carved lintel dated 1712.

Irouleguy Oct 2014 fronton

Old fronton in a little village that also comprised about six houses, one church, one dairy and one bar.

Irouleguy Oct 2014 ewe

Milk from the sheep of this region is used to produce the AOC Ossau Iraty cheese.

Irouleguy Oct 2014 hogs

Basque “pie noir” hogs doing what hogs do.

Irouleguy Oct 2014  and more vines

I have often tried to learn about a particular wine by reading a book.  One would think that memorizing soil compositions, pouring over maps of the vineyards, and learning about the methods of vinification would give some insight into the final product  in the bottle.  But in my experience, all these details from a book don’t really stick in my head, mainly I guess, because I can’t really create a coherent picture of the place that produced this wine, can’t answer the question “why this wine from this place?”.

When, on the other hand, I have the chance to actually visit a wine region, to see the terrain and its exposure to the sun,to see the farms and the houses and  to see how the local people live and work and eat, then the wine and its context makes sense and are with me forever.

Irouleguy Oct 2014 lunch

On the terrace at Auberge Manexenea in Saint-Etienne de Baigorry.

I have to admit that I am not a very hardcore hiker… a couple hours on the trail is plenty for me.  And you can generally guess that, when picking a hike, there will always be an inn, auberge or restaurant near where it ends.  In this case, it was Manexenea, a little auberge near the Basque town of Saint-Etienne de Baigorry.  Within minutes of leaving the trial, we were having a plate of foie gras terrine and a glass of sweet wine from Jurancon.  The October sun was plenty warm enough to enjoy the outdoor terrace overlooking the Nives des Aldudes river.  Now that’s my idea of roughin’ it.

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