Wines from north of the Pyrenees
By Paul Strang
This Guide was last updated on 28 July 2011
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In the foothill of the Pyrenees, the village of Saint Etienne de Baigorry is in the heart of Basque country, and home to the wines of Irouleguy. © Mick Rock
Gascons used to be regarded by Parisians as mad or uncouth or both. But even in the French capital they recognize the wonderful originality and quality of the food and wines which come from this extreme southwest corner of France. It is a largely unexplored area, apart from the holiday beaches leading down to Biarritz, the slightly anglicized town of Pau and the pilgrimage town of Lourdes. The Gascons would include in this list Tarbes, where the most famous white haricot beans in France come from, an irreplaceable ingredient in the best cassoulets.
Elsewhere the countryside is little known, cut off from railways, even the motorways serving only the principal cities already mentioned. But alongside the wonderful beef, chickens, ducks and geese, the unending fields of maize and sunflowers and the gutsy local brandy, Armagnac, some of the best wines in the South-West, and indeed all France are made. They may not be subtle like Bordeaux, but then the people who make them aren’t exactly that. They are down to earth, highly physical, devoted to rugby and their own bloodless form of bull-fighting, while their Basque neighbours specialize in pelota, all-in-wrestling and tug-of-war. All are united in their love of good eating and drinking, so it is not surprising that the Gascon Vins de Pays, the wines of Saint Mont, Tursan, Bearn, Madiran and Irouléguy are of such good quality as well as typical of their makers, who might be called a part of their terroir.
The vineyards of Irouléguy and Jurançon in the far south lie in the foothills of the Pyrenees, often growing on vertiginous terraces or amphitheatres carved by nature out of the steep hillsides. Here there is silica-clay soil with pebbles and gravel deposits left behind by the eruption of the Pyrenees from the bowels of the earth millions of years ago and the vines are often found at heights up to 400 metres above sea-level. North of Pau the countryside is gentler, the vineyards first stretching along the Adour valley, the clay soil mixed in the case of Madiran with iron and manganese as well as the ubiquitous pebbles and some sand. Further north the Côtes de Gascogne are soft and rolling, sharing their terrain with the Armagnac-makers.
The climate seems always to lag behind the rest of the world by about a month; the spring giving way as late as June to torrid summers, and the autumns lasting well up to Christmas.
Driving from Paris take the A10 going south to Orléans, then the A71 to Vierzon, the A20 then continues all the way south to Cahors and onto Toulouse. From here the A64 runs westerly to the coast. Alternatively take the A10 from Paris to Bordeaux and then the A63 to Biarritz. By train, the TGV services run to Bordeaux and Toulouse from where trains link to major towns. The main international airports are Biarritz-Bayonne and Pau.
Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Sud Ouest,
Chemin de Borde Rouge, 31321 Castanet-Tolos
Pau Tourist Office,
Place Royale, 64000 Pau
Bayonne Tourist Office,
Place des Basques, 64100 Bayonne
Côtes de Gascogne Information
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