Saint Étienne de Baïgorry is a marvel of a village with half-timbered homes, a small river, and an ancient Roman footbridge. As one of the last posts of civilization before arriving into the high Pyrénées Mountains, it is also one of the last towns in France before reaching the Spanish border. However, little attention is given to political frontiers this deep into the mountains, because the village is the heart of the Pays Basque. This is unspoiled country as one rarely finds, and incredibly steep hillside vineyards define the dramatic contours of the landscape. Saint Etienne de Baïgorry sits within the appellation of Irouléguy, and the wines here are as powerful, rustic, and wild as the land itself. Since phylloxera devastated the vineyards from 1914-1918, the appellation has been slow to recover. Though the I.N.A.O. awarded Irouléguy its own A.O.C. in 1970, the majority of the production is sold to the local co-op. Even today there are only a handful of producers who have what it takes to venture out independently. Among the proud few are the Hillaus.
In 1994, Marianne and Joseph Hillau founded Domaine Etxegaraya (pronounced “Etch-uh-guh-RYE-uh”). The domaine sits protected in a shaded valley, below the town of Irouléguy, with a view of Spain from their classic, whitewashed home. The difficulty of the terraced terrain makes tractor work appealing, but highly risky—so much so that it tragically claimed the life of Joseph. With quiet intensity and characteristic Basque courage, Marianne and her daughter now manage their seven hectares of vineyards on their own. The vineyard land of Irouléguy is known for its reddish-brown sandstone, richly streaked with mica, silica, iron oxide, and dolomite. These minerals infuse balanced freshness into the hearty, earthy structure of Irouléguy’s traditional grape varietals. Marianne lends a certain tenderness to these complex wines which makes them more accessible than is typical for the region. The Hillaus have made considerable progress over the last few years, and La Revue du Vin de France credits Etxegaraya as having “…one of the most expressive mineral bouquets of the Southwest.” Make sure to try their single-vineyard Irouléguy “Cuvée Lehengoa.” Lehengoa means “yesteryear” in Basque—à propos given that the grapes hail from 150-year-old vines, said to be among the oldest left in France.