[This post appears simultaneously on David McDuff's excellent blog, as part of his guest blogger coverage of the 2010 Tour de France.]
Allow me to begin with two confessions.
First, I have not yet watched any portion of the 2010 Tour de France. I have been catching up on the various stage results, strong individual performances, strong proclivity towards acts of douchery (this is a real word, by the way -just like 'hateration' or 'dancery') by a certain Spanish cyclist. Anyway, I have yet to really get in to watching the Tour and 2010 does not appear to be the year to change that. Not sure if McDuff would have accepted this post had he known this, but I shall do my best to hang with the rest of the contributors and their wealth of cycling as well as geographic and vinous knowledge.
Second, up until a few nights ago I had never drunk an Irouleguy. Tasted, yes, but drunk, no. I admit that over the past several years, I have shown lots of love for wines from Euskadi South (Spanish Basque country) while not drinking nearly enough from Euskadi North (French Basque Country).
Stage 18 starts from Salies-de-Bearne, which lies about 61 kilometers east of Bayonne, the closest city proximate to the Irouleguy AOC. Granted its status as an AOC in 1970, Irouleguy is the westernmost AOC region in France, literally a stone's throw from the Spanish border. In fact, San Sebastian, Spain is much closer to Irouleguy than it is to this stage's destination city, Bordeaux. Vines are planted along the slopes of the Pyrénées mountains surrounding the town of St. Jean Pied de Port and eight other villages that make up the region of Irouléguy. Vineyards are south facing on hillsides with fairly steep slopes, and therefore they are often terraced. Tannat is the star grape, and it is typically blended with cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. If you are thinking that tannat reminds you of the word tannin, then you would be correct; the wines composed of tannat, specifically those from the Madiran AOC, can be noticeably firm and tannic. In fact, the technique of micro-oxygenation as a means of reducing the perception of tannin in red wine was originally developed here.
Earlier this week I opened two bottles of Irouleguy rouge, which presented significant enough stylistic differences to make them good studies over the course of a few days. days. Two Irouleguy from two different vintages, imported by two excellent locally based importers (Charles Neal and Kermit Lynch, respectively), primarily drunk over the course of two nights.
About the closest to regionally typical food I had to accompany these wines was an eggplant heavy variation on a pisto, with healthy amounts of flat leaf parsley and garlic, as well as a smattering of arugula and pimenton, to brighten and embolden the dish. I also whipped up some kale sauteed with garlic, garbanzos and bacon (sort of a riff on a Cal Pep dish which I quickly discovered and whipped up thanks to the internets). For night two, I roasted chicken. There was also petit basque cheese on the second night.
Let's start with the 2006 Domaine Ilarria Irouleguy. Proprietor Peiro Espil owns 6 hectares, primarily of tannat but with some cabernet franc and a bit of cabernet sauvignon. The vineyards are farmed organically and are certified by Ecocert. This wine is truly a delight to drink: red fruited, a bit savory in a spicy (think paprika) and subtly green vegetal kind of way. There is wonderful minerality and a freshness that make it terrific with food; even on the second day this wine was showing terrifically. Honest, traditional Bordeaux comes to mind if you're looking for something familiar as a frame of reference. Just a bit lighter and more mineral. Somewhere between humble, traditional, well made Bordeaux and a good Chinon is stylistically where this wine lies.
The 2005 Domaine Extegaraya Cuvee Lehengoa is clearly a bigger wine. Composed of 80% tannat and 20% cab, from 150 year old vines, this is richer and black fruited on the nose. The wine also has a wonderful lavender like florality to its aromas and building inner mouth fragrance. Initially it struck me as the more impressive and serious of the two Irouleguy. It also revealed itself to be more extracted and woody; wood tannins might be a bit much for some drinkers who prefer less of an overt oak influence. That having been said, while I did not empty this bottle as quickly as the Ilarria (always a surefire way to determine preference), this wine still went very well with food, even the difficult to pair tomatoey pisto.
Back to cycling and TDF. Stage 18 is a flat one - 198 km of flatness. A good thing after all the climbing which the riders have had to endure over the past several stages, particulary up the grueling Col du Tourmalet. It looks like Alberto Contador, aka "la bolsa de ducha," all but has the tour wrapped up. However, this is an important stage as it relates to team standings, so we'll see what happens.