April 2, 2010 Domaine Arretxea
Domaine Arretxea Hegoxuri
gros manseng, petit menseng, petit courbu
We’re heading home, the wine adventures in Languedoc at an end. The consolation is a couple of days in London en route, and a visit to my favourite wine shop…anywhere. It’s The Sampler in Islington (www.thesampler.co.uk). Not only does it have a terrific selection from around the world, but it has sampling machines eager to dispense any of 80 different wines, sufficient to keep you there (roaming, glass in hand) oh…for a solid hour at least. Among the wines on tap today are Château Musar from the 1970s, Paxton AAA – a biodynamic shiraz/grenache blend from Australia, and a natural wine from Sicily – Cornelissen Contadino 5.
The Sampler has proved a great success, so much so that a second outlet will open in London in the fall. It’s a terrific concept. Sebastien, the shop’s manager, is in equal measure knowledgeable and witty, and always up for a chat. I get him to add £10 to my Sampler card, which doesn’t last long, though I do resist the urge to triple the funds on the card and go for a shot of Château Lafite Rothchild 1985.
I have two wines in hand when I leave (with the bottles we brought from France, our suitcases already feel leaden), wines in fact from small producers a little distance from where we had settled in Languedoc. One is a vin blanc from the little known appellation of Irouléguy, in southwest France, near its border with Spain. This is the cross-border home of the Basques, the ancient, independently-minded people with a history and culture all their own. The appellation in total has but 200 hectares under vine. We are in for something special.
Domaine Arretxea Hegoxuri 2007
The grapes here are mainly the two varieties of manseng, distinguished by their intensity of flavours and high acidity. It is a wine out of the mainstream, yet altogether appealing. As its name attests, it holds proudly to its Basque heritage. In the glass it is a pale, shining yellow, with green reflections. It brings minerals to the nose, hints of a seaweed shoreline and fresh shellfish. In fact, on tasting the wine, the first thought is how well it would go with seafood, prompting a trip to the kitchen and a quick searing of a few shrimp (seasoned with that great Basque spice ‘piment d’espelette’). It is a wine that needs food to be fully appreciated, to compliment its acidity and citrus notes. It is pleasantly dry and slightly tart. It is a polished outsider. Character in a glass. $
The educators turned wine-makers are Michel and Thérèse Riouspeyrous, cultivating just eight hectares. Like many of the new, exceptional vignerons in France, Michel took over the domaine from his father who had been selling the grapes to the local cooperative. Replanted and modernized, and now biodynamic, Domaine Arretxea has established an enviable reputation, for its red as well as its white. Its proximity to the Pyrenees and the Atlantic Ocean plays a major role, as does the predominance of sandstone in the soil, together with its strong mineral content. Terroir alone is not responsible for such rich and rewarding wines. The human hands at work are more than equal to what nature has offered them.