Domaine Brana

Saint Jean Pied de Port
Jean Brana
Martine Brana

The appellation of Irouleguy stretches along steep hillsides in the Pyrenees within the French Pays Basque. The 245 hectares are planted almost exclusively to red grapes. The vineyards which range in altitude between 200 and 450 meters can have inclines up to 70% and are often planted along narrowly cut terraces that require an enormous amount of hand labor. The characteristic soil of Irouleguy is a red sandstone that is rich in iron. This is complemented by a richer mix of clay/limestone and some outcrops of limestone. The vineyards face south and are protected by the surrounding mountain peaks from the wet weather coming off the Atlantic. The cool and wet springs are balanced by an “Indian summer” that allows the full ripening of the grapes into October.

The Branas started as wine and spirits negociants in the Pays Basque in 1897, an activity that continues today. A few generations on, in 1974, Etienne Brana decided to plant a pear orchard and build a distillery in Saint Jean Pied de Port that would focus on distilling local fruits such as pears, plums and raspberries. Ten years later in 1984 and one hundred years after phyloxera ravaged the Basque vineyards, Etienne planted 20 hectares of vines, making the Branas the first in Irouleguy to replant on a meaningful scale. Tragically in 1992, the year before the completion of the Brana’s stunning winery, built into the steep hills above Saint Jean Pied de Port, Etienne died. He left his wife, Adrienne, and their two children, Martine and Jean, to carry on with his projects. Jean took over the vineyards and winemaking after studying oenology and then interning with Basque neighbor and winemaker at Chateau Petrus, Jean-Claude Berrouet. Martine took over the sourcing of fruit and the distilling. Most recently, in 2018 a new structure was built housing a new distillery and tasting room. The accomplishments of the Brana family are recognized not only in the Pays Basque, but internationally and their Eaux-de-Vies are considered among the best in France.

Jean Brana’s farming philosophy could be called bio-diverse. He gave up his certification of organic farming because the treatment of his vines required an application of copper that produced toxicity in his soils. He also abandoned most of the bio-dynamic remedies he employed, moving instead to a biodiversity that encouraged the natural flora and fauna to co-exist with the vines. The result has been the return of insects and birds that hadn’t been seen in the vineyard for years as well as one hundred and ten plant species that co-habit with the vines. To celebrate this development, Jean redesigned all the wine labels so that each one features one of the indigenous birds found in the vineyards.

Irouleguy Blanc “Ilori”

The Irouleguy Blanc “Ilori” cuvée varies a bit according to the vintage. It is always primarily Gros Manseng, 50% to 70%, with Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng making up the balance. The Branas are one of the few families to have replanted the Petit Courbu. It is a traditional varietal of the region but has trouble with the wet and unpredictable spring weather and is not terribly productive. Fermentation with indigenous yeasts is preceded by a gentle maceration of the skins “maceration pellicullaire” and a settling of the must “debourbage”. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and rests “sur lie” until bottling the following spring. Ilori is the basque word for daffodil.

Irouleguy Blanc “Domaine”

The Irouleguy Blanc “Domaine” cuvée is a blend of 70% Gros Manseng and 15% each of Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu. The grapes are selected from vineyards in the higher elevations with Gros Manseng planted in soils of compressed sandstone called “argilite” and the Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu planted in limestone soils. Using indigenous yeast, the wine is fermented 70% in stainless steel and 30% in barrel. The wine stays in contact with the lies for nine months before an assemblage is made. The wine is filtered but not fined before bottling in June.

Irouleguy Rosé “Harri Gorri”

The Harri Gorri Rosé cuvée varies a bit according to the vintage. But it always seems to be a blend of at least 50% Tannat and the remaining percentage Cabernet Franc. The wine incorporates both the “saignée” method, with a maceration sufficient to give a deep color, good body and lots of spice and “direct press” which yields a juice with little color and delicate aromas. The Brana Rosé is not bottled until the summer and is normally sold in the U.S. market the following spring. “Harri Gorri” is basque for red stones and refers to the red sandstone found locally in Irouleguy.

Irouleguy Rouge “Ohitza”

The Irouleguy Rouge “Ohitza” cuvée is typically made from 50% Tannat and 50% Cabernet Franc. The parcels are from sandstone soils at mid-elevation. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel with a maceration of around seventeen days. The wine is aged 70% in barrels of 3/4/5 years and 30% in cement tanks. Every three months the wine is racked and assembled and then redivided among the barrels and tanks. After a year, a final assemblage is made which then continues to mature in barrel and tank until bottling in June, eighteen months after harvest. Ohitza is the basque word for tradition.

Irouleguy Rouge “Domaine”

The Irouleguy Rouge “Domaine” cuvée is typically a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 20% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat. The parcels are on both sandstone and limestone soils. Fermentation is done with indigenous yeasts and maceration lasts for two to three weeks. The wine is aged in barrels for twelve months with rackings done every three months. Jean Brana uses primarily barrels that are one year old, but includes in the mix a small proportion of both older barrels and new barrels.

Vin de France “Bizi Berri”

The cuvée “Bizi Berri” is produced from the native varieties; Arrouya and Erremaxaoua. Originally the blend included Axeria (Cabernet Franc), but after a few vintages the Axeria was dropped. This was done in part because the French government wouldn’t allow the name “Axeria” to appear on the label in place of the French synonym, “Cabernet Franc.” The wine is produced from a mere 1,000 plants grown at high elevation in soils of red sandstone. Fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks with a maceration of up to two weeks. The wine matures for 18 months before being blended and bottled. Production is two barrels. “Bizi Berri” is basque for “new life.”


Eric Asimov is back from Irouléguy. He writes an article in today's "Dining and Wine" section featuring the appellation and its top producers, including Domaine Brana. Also the photographs in the online slideshow are quite beautiful, very worth a look. Link:


Splendor in Solitude

The Wines of Irouléguy, in French Basque Country

JULY 29, 2014
Slide Show

The Wines of Irouléguy

The Pour By
ST.-ÉTIENNE-DE-BAÏGORRY, France — On a Saturday morning, this village in the French Pyrenees seems like any other small French town. Shoppers wend through the outdoor market while tourists snap photos. But resounding above the ordinary fray are the cries of young men playingpelote, a game akin to jai alai. On an outdoor fronton, or court, adjacent to the market, using a basket shaped like a scimitar, they hurl a hard ball against a wall; it ricochets skyward at incredible speeds, sometimes flying onto the street, obliging passers-by to keep their heads up. Taking it all in, you realize that St.-Étienne, in the heart of Irouléguy in French Basque Country, is a different kind of place. So it is with the wines of Irouléguy (ee-RHOO-lay-ghee), very much part of the constellation of appellations found in the southwest of France yet separate and distinct. It’s not that the grapes are different — the reds are made of tannat, as in Madiran, and cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, as in Bordeaux and Bergerac. Whites are made of gros manseng, petit manseng and petit courbu, as in Jurançon. Yet the land, the climate, the language and the culture remain apart, isolated by the Pyrenees, which wrinkle upward in a confluence of steep, verdant slopes like the sides of a giant bowl, containing this land of picturesque towns, rivers and patchwork farms. The wine expresses those differences as plainly as the Basque differs from the French on the region’s dual-language signs. I have been obsessed with the wines of Irouléguy for five years. It began with a visit to Bordeaux, where a restaurateur, recognizing that two friends and I were in the region professionally, plied us with a series of wines that he was producing. They were glossy, oaky things, modern and generic, not at all what I would have chosen to drink given the chance. As a refresher before the next round, he offered a rosé from Irouléguy, practically dismissing it as a palate cleanser. Some palate cleanser! Unlike the Bordeaux, this wine was fascinating. It was refreshing, sure, but it tasted almost like blood and iron, with rocks thrown in for good measure. Amid the parade of banality, this rosé stood out as a formidable wine of great character. Back home, I set about tracking down as many wines from Irouléguy as I could. There weren’t many. Irouléguy is a tiny appellation, about as far southwest as you can go in France. Though I found just a handful, the wines were almost always compelling. Mostly, they are reds, yet not the inky black, tannic monsters typical of Madiran. Rather, they are limber, marked as much by acidity as by tannins, with an almost exotic flavor of flowers and red fruits laced with that bloody iron tang. I found them rustic in the best sense of the word, genuine and forthright, without the finesse, perhaps, of the wines of the Médoc or Graves, but also without the artifice. The whites were tougher to find but equally irresistible. They may have tasted like flowers and yellow fruits, but they weren’t fruity. Instead, they were savory, sometimes saline, yet fresh and lively. And the rosés: The few I could find reinforced that initial impression of elemental wines of the earth, worthy of aging, unlike most ephemeral rosés. I resolved that I had to visit Irouléguy to see for myself the soil from which these wines emerged, and the people who shaped them. So it was in June that Irouléguy unfolded before me in all its pastoral splendor. Sheep and cattle grazed on the sharp-angled pastures, next to fields of grain and an occasional orchard. Rivers gurgled along, and though Irouléguy is known for frequent rain, the weather over the course of four days was sunny and hot. St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the other major town, is an embarkation point forthe Camino de Santiago, the Christian pilgrimage route that leads to the shrine of St. James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Dozens of backpackers, preparing for their spiritual walk, wander the main streets. It all reinforced Irouléguy’s Brigadoon-like quality of otherworldliness. Vineyards are not a dominant feature here, as they are in so many wine regions. They are simply one facet of an agricultural way of life, as perhaps they were centuries ago in those other places before wine became an industry. And yet the handful of excellent estates that do focus on wine, like Domaine Ilarria, Maison Arretxea and Domaine Brana, are resolute, seeing it more as a calling than a business. Peio Espil, the grandson of vignerons, started Ilarria in the 1980s, painstakingly constructing terraces on precipitous limestone slopes so he could plant vines. He is a follower of the Japanese agronomist Masanobu Fukuoka, who before his death in 2008 preached a hands-off style of farming that paradoxically requires constant vigilance in the vineyard. In the cellar, Mr. Espil operates in a similar style, avoiding manipulations and, as much as possible, the use of sulfur dioxide, a common wine preservative. Yet his wines are rock stable, and they show an intricate sense of detail that is rare in any region. "I try to work as naturally as possible," he said as we walked in the vineyard. He described the soil as rich in calcium, iron and magnesium. "It’s healthy for wine and for life," he said. His wines radiate minerality. The rosé is superb, complex and lasting, as is the lively, intense white and the vibrant, pure red. In the best years, he makes a special red cuvée, Bixintxo. The 2009, still a baby, was substantial yet elegant, with the signature elemental flavors that stamp the wines of the region. Only about 500 acres of grapes are farmed in Irouléguy, equal to a couple of good-size Bordeaux estates and half as much as a century ago, when phylloxera, a ravenous aphid, devastated the vines. Grapes were not grown on a meaningful scale again until 1984, when Étienne Brana, whose family distilled eau de vie, planted a vineyard on red sandstone and began to make wine independent of the local cooperative. Today, Domaine Brana, run by Étienne’s children, Jean and Martine, produces lively, excellent wines, including a refreshing Ilori white and an Ohitza red that is beautifully balanced and graceful. For advice, the Branas often go to a family friend, Jean-Claude Berrouet, who for many years oversaw the winemaking at Château Pétrus, the acclaimed Pomerol estate. Mr. Berrouet, whose father grew cherries in Irouléguy, has consulted with winemakers all over the world. But his desire, he said, was always to return to the land of his heritage. In 1992, he planted four and a half acres of sandstone terraces, primarily with white grapes, and produced his first vintage in 1998. He called his wine Herri Mina, which essentially translates as homesick for the country. "My story is sentimental," he said. "I have a nostalgic feeling for this region." Mr. Berrouet aims for grace and balance, making what he calls "nonsophisticated wines, without technology." He is passionate about tea, and sees it as an analogy for the structure and aromatic expression he seeks in wine. "If you steep tea too long, you lose it," he said. "Balance and modest extraction are crucial to guard the nobility of the wine." Indeed, his 2013 Herri Mina white is beautifully balanced and lip-smacking, with savory fruit flavors. He also makes a bit of red, entirely cabernet franc, with stony red fruit flavors and impeccable tension and harmony. Despite the initial success of Domaine Brana, it was not easy to resurrect the local wine industry. Michel Riouspeyrous of Maison Arretxea, the grandson of a vigneron, and his wife, Thérèse, remembered the difficulty of trying to plant vines 25 years ago. "The banks would lend money for cows and sheep, which they understood," he said, "but not for wine." They persevered and now own about 20 acres, which they supplement with grapes bought from a friend. Searching and experimental, Mr. Riouspeyrous is quick to describe the 40 kinds of soil on his property. He began practicing biodynamic viticulture in 2008. The wines are superb, including a deeply colored, delicious rosé, an almost-exotic white and an energetic, earthy red. A red cuvée, Haitza, is made from older vines. The 2011 was richly flavored and expressive, with great aging potential. Wine is not the only intriguing product of Irouléguy. Bixintxo Aphaule started as a winemaker, but now, with his wife, Pascale, he devotes himself to making cider, which he calls "another leitmotif of the land." He believes that cider can be as expressive of terroir as wine is, provided that you have a diversity of trees planted on the right soils, and that you work organically. "It’s necessary for the aromas, not a commercial question," he said. He makes three different vintage ciders under the Bordatto label, and all are well worth seeking out, particularly the elegant, concentrated Txalaparta. What did it taste like? As with the wines, the people and the game of pelote, it was pure Irouléguy. Here are some notable producers of Irouléguy wine and cider, which are difficult to find but worth seeking out. AMEZTIA Exuberant, tannic reds; about $20. (De Maison Selections, Chapel Hill, N.C.) MAISON ARRETXEA Refreshing whites, earthy reds, delicious rosés; about $25. (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif.) BORDATTO Exceptional ciders; about $20. (De Maison Selections) DOMAINE BRANA Lively whites; subtle, age-worthy reds, $25 to $30. (Wine Traditions, Falls Church, Va.) HERRI MINA Savory whites; stony, impeccable reds; $25 to $30. (Martine’s Wines, Novato, Calif.) DOMAINE ILARRIA Complex rosés, minerally whites, superb reds; $20 to $30. (Thomas Calder Selection/Moonlight Wine, New York)
Email: And follow Eric Asimov on Twitter: @EricAsimov.
A version of this article appears in print on July 30, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Splendor in Solitude. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe

Region: Southwest

The wine appellations of southwest France are spread throughout ten different “départments”. The Romans called the area Aquitania, “land of waters”, and it has been described as the area of few roads but many rivers. This group of appellations is certainly the most far ranging and diverse to be brought together under one geographical umbrella...

Although the area is spread out, it is given contours by its impressive natural boundaries. The great mountain range known as the Massif Central forms the eastern boundary. This vast range gives rise to the Dordogne, the Lot and the Tarn rivers, which flow westward toward the Atlantic Ocean and have been so crucial to the development of the region’s vineyards. The southern extreme is formed by the Pyrénées, the source of the Garonne River whose northern route passes through Toulouse and Bordeaux. The region is met on its western edge by the Atlantic Ocean.

Within the southwest of France there are many cultural and culinary traditions. Around Toulouse one finds a distinctly southern, “Provençal” influence, while the Pyrénées is home to the Basque culture as well as the Béarnaise. Further north one passes through Gascony on route to Bordeaux and Périgord.

When the French talk about abandoning the charms of nouvelle cuisine for good old country cooking or “cuisine du terroir”, the Southwest is the first “terroir” that springs to mind. Not surprisingly, the wines of southwest France also offer a welcome antidote to “nouvelle” wines and we have chosen to work with vignerons who prefer to refine the quality of their traditional wines rather than abandon them. Many of the appellations in the Southwest have ancient and illustrious histories such as the Gaillac vineyards which date back to the Gauls and were widely planted by the Romans in the first century. In the fourteenth century over half the wine shipped from the port of Bordeaux was from the Cahors region. Reflective of the cultural diversity is the diversity of wine styles and grape varieties grown in the Southwest, many of which are particular to their appellations. Red varieties from the Carmenet family such as Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc are grown throughout the region as well as Tannat, Malbec and Negrette from the Cotoïdes family. White varieties of the region include Len de l’el, Mauzac, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. There is a bucolic quality in this corner of France, a quality which is mirrored in the rich tapestry of terroirs and local grape varieties that produce these most savory, delicious and charming wines.