Southwestern-most France is an otherworldly, unspoiled place—completely bucolic but also dotted with Three-Michelin-Star restaurants hidden among the barns and pastures. And then there are the wines, like this dark-robed red from Domaine Ilarria, which are, like everything Basque, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Located in the “French” section of the Basque territory, in the tiny appellation of Irouléguy, Peio Espil of Domaine Ilarria takes the powerful Tannat grape, leavens it with the Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, and crafts a red that melds Basque rusticity with Bordeaux refinement. As in neighboring Madiran (the Tannat capital of southwest France), there are some extraordinary gems to be found down here at the foot of the Pyrénées, and Domaine Ilarria is one of them.
The Irouléguy growing zone, like some of its southwestern French neighbors, has a push-pull of air currents coming up from the Atlantic Ocean and down from the Pyrénées; the ocean air is cool and refreshing, while the mountain air is dry, creating ideal conditions for viticulture. Domaine Ilarria’s vines are planted in vertical rows that spill down the slopes of the foothills, with soils mostly comprised of limestone and clay with some schist.
Peio Espil and family live in a village with a population of about 300, where he farms 10 hectares of vines that have been Certified Organic since 2008. The landscape here is lush and green, a common theme in the Basque Country whether it’s France or Spain, and in most instances, the language spoken among the few winegrowers in the area is Euskara. Prior to 1990, Domaine Ilarria was one of only two independent producers in the appellation, which was long dominated by the local cooperative winery.
Depending on the vintage, Domaine Ilarria’s flagship red spends 16-24 months aging in a mix of tanks and used French oak barriques before bottling. It’s a succulent, spicy blend of roughly 55% Tannat, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, with each of its component parts playing a recognizable role. Tannat’s ferocious tannins are tamed without the wine losing its slightly wild, peppery edge, while a dense core of ripe black fruit caresses and coats the palate.
In the glass, the wine is an intense ruby-purple moving to magenta and pink at the rim, with aromas of black raspberry, Morello cherry, plum, cassis, tar, bay leaf, black pepper, and violets. It is medium-plus in body (yet refreshingly low in alcohol) with a nice dose of sappy mid-palate fruit that tames Tannat’s tannins and lends some lushness to the texture. This is a gutsy red, kind of a “country cousin” to a Right Bank Bordeaux, and it will shine with braised and grilled meats alike.
Heard It Through The Grapevine
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