Every so often we come across wines that really, really blow us away. Not because they're the best we've ever had, not because they're particularly cheap, but because of their provenance—where they come from, who made them, the sense of terroir and history and culture crying out from every sip. So it is with Herri Mina, quite possibly the most esoteric wine we'll buy this year.
Herri Mina is the project of Jean-Claude Berrouet, longtime winemaker at the eminent Bordeaux house Chateau Petrus, one of the world's most highly sought wines. Mr. Berrouet has been the wizard behind the Petrus curtain since 1964. So, he knows a thing or two about making, well you know, the best.
A Little History
The Pays Basque (French Basque Country), along the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, are better known for their amazingly funky ciders than they are for their wines. Like so many regions of Southern France, the area was pretty well wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic in the early 20th Century. But unlike more prominent regions, most of the Pays Basque vineyards were ripped asunder and replanted with food crops. Except for three villages, that is, including the tiny mountain gem known as Irouléguy.
Until the late 1970s, nearly all the wine produced by this smallest of appellations (only 240 acres under vine) were consumed locally or sold off to trade in bulk. None of it was bottled estate.
A Dream Realized
While Mr. Berrouet's reputation and career has been built entirely on Grand Cru Bordeaux, he dreamed for decades of returning to his family's roots in the Pays Basque to buy vineyards and make the wine of his heritage. But the Pays Basque is a very insular place. The locals deal only with the locals, and the commerce is strictly reserved for those who live and work and worship in these mountain villages. So despite Mr. Berrouet's notoriety as one of the world's best vignerons, he was forced to wait until chance intervened. In 1992, a friend looking to sell off parcels of his land approached Mr. Berrouet who jumped at the chance to fulfill his dream. But even then the going was uneasy; buyer and seller had to come together to convince the locals to approve the sale.
Since then he's focused almost exclusively on white wine, cultivating indigenous varietals like Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu. For the red that he does make (only 5 barrels a year!), it's exclusively Cabernet Franc, which is thought to have originated in the Pays Basque. The land is extremely steep, with terraced vineyards that must be picked by hand. Tradition has the pickers going over the vines several times so that grapes are picked only at exact ripeness. And the wines, though barely a dot on the map of the wine world, in the hands of this mastermind, have a truly world-class appeal.
Very Limited Availability — 2 cases of white, 1 case of red