I’ve got Basque on the brain lately. It’s such 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 today’s 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. 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. 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. What a pitch-perfect snapshot of this special place!
As described in atmospheric detail by Ilarria’s West Coast importer, Charles Neal, Peio Espil and family live in village with a population of about 300, where he farms 10 hectares of vines that have been Certified Organic since 2008. 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. Espil’s vines are planted in vertical rows that spill down the slopes of the foothills, with soils mostly comprised of limestone and clay. The landscape 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.
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 55% Tannat, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, with each of its component parts playing a recognizable role. 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 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 good, concentrated Right Bank Bordeaux, and it will shine with braised and grilled meats alike. There’s something about the savory, smoky finish of this wine that makes me crave a “mixed grill” of some kind with some coal-roasted potatoes on the side. Decant it about 30 minutes before serving in Bordeaux stems at 60 degrees; daring to be different pays dividends, as you’ll see. Cheers!
Tannat 55%, Cabernet Franc 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%