The Basque Country, a region in Europe comprising areas in northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is widely recognized for their quality drinks. Whether it's cider poured from on high at local cider houses known as “sagardotegias”, or the high acid, slightly effervescent Txakoli wine poured in the same manner, it’s clear those in the Basque Country take pride in their fermented alcoholic beverages. But Txakoli and Basque cider are largely associated with the Spanish side of the border; the Northern Basque Country, the portion of the region that lies within France, ought to get more recognition for crafting serious wines. Most of all, the vineyards surrounding the village of Irouléguy are capable of producing gorgeously complex wines and are setting the tone for the broader French winemaking region known as Sud-Ouest. This week’s bottle, a 2020 vintage of Famille Berrouet’s “Herri Mina” Blanc, is a very special one, and one I was lucky to get my hands on.
Irouléguy, or “Irulegi” if you prefer the Basque name for it, is the only village with an Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) certification in the French portion of the Basque Country. And the estate of Herri Mina, founded by Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker at the famed Château Pétrus of Bordeaux for over 40 years, is crafting some of the most emblematic wines of the AOC. Berrouet, a native of Irouléguy and born to a Basque family, decided that following his tremendously successful career, he would return to his roots. Indeed, you get an impression of his sentimentality when you translate “Herri Mina” from the Basque language to English: “herri” translates to country and “mina” to homesick. He first planted vines in 1992, and has been releasing vintages since 1998. The estate’s white is composed of grapes grown throughout Southwestern France, being a blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. The grapes are well suited for the climate - they receive more sunshine than most French vineyards, allowing a fuller ripening, but are cooled through proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, allowing a vibrant acidity to flourish.
Irouléguy and surrounding vineyards.
This 2020 vintage is eminently drinkable, showcasing how mineral-driven and textured the white wines from Irouléguy can be. The wine’s complexity is evident from the start, with a potent, steely minerality on the nose, with delicate wildflower and lemon zest notes on the periphery. The palate exhibits a honeyed richness, rounding out the body defined by fleshy, bright fruit and a savory mineral finish. The acidity certainly sits in the front-end of the palate but is balanced throughout, providing the contours of the wine’s serious structure. Jean-Claude Berroet, known worldwide for his red Pomerol and incomparable expertise on the Merlot grape, has clearly built an estate with Herri Mina that treats white grape varietals with an equivalent level of attention and detail.
In the past couple years, I’ve become affectionate towards the Manseng grapes, particularly Petit Manseng, which is starting to produce delicious dry wines in the humid climate of Virginia, my home state. They can produce wines of such unique, savory expression, often combining that rich honeyed texture with a deeply prevalent minerality, a scarce combination in a wine. I can’t help it, but this delicious Irouléguy wine made me crave some good Virginia wine, which is hard to come by in New York. Maybe I’m a little “mina”, or homesick, too.