When people speak of Basque country it’s natural to think of San Sebastian, pintxos, rowing clubs, pelota and proud traditions. It’s less usual to imagine the French countryside, Bayonne ham, pimente, Irouléguy wines and the occasional oyster, but the truth is that French Basque (or Iparralde as the Basque call it) makes up three of the seven Basque regions.
Apart from being on separate sides of the border the main difference between the two areas is that Spanish Basque (or Hegoalde) is autonomous while Iparralde is ruled from Paris. Both areas have the same rolling and ridiculously green landscape. Both sides are famous for their surfing and cuisine and both Hegoalde and Ipparralde have a proud history that stretches back to the pre-Roman times.
And both love cider.
Setting out far earlier than we would have liked in the morning we set our destination to the tiny hamlet of Jaxu and the cider producer Domaine Bordatto. Upon arrival (late and after a number of mishaps) we were welcomed by Pascale and Bixintxo Aphaule, a number of cows and Txapin the dog.
Bordatto has only one hectare of wine and 3,5 hectares of apple orchards. Everything on the farm is done with agricultur biologique – or organic farming.
”We want to work cider like wine” Bixintxo explained to us. He started his career as a winemaker, but decided together with his wife Pascale that they wanted a life closer to home and to Basque traditions. As both were born in nearby town Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port they started looking for farms in the area and ended up settling in Jaxu 15 years ago.
”Now we are like in prehistoric time with the local apples.” Pascale added, then further elaborated; ”The agricultural landscape in the area has changed a lot in the past 100 years, much thanks to the big wars and industrial advancements. The land around Jaxu is very green, with lots of sun and lots of rain. This makes it interesting for animal farming, and with less people to work the farms other types of agriculture are disappearing. In addition many apple trees have been cut down in order to make it easier for the tractors to pass, which means that it’s getting increasingly more difficult to buy apples from other farmers.”
In the process of trying to identify different apple varieties around the farm they have stumbled upon a number of problems. For example an apple that is called Manula in Jaxu is called something completely different in the neighboring village 2 kilometers away. In the beginning they actually thought they had up to 25 different varieties growing on the farm, but it turns out they only have 10 or so. This is not only due to the difficulty of names but also to the extreme impact of terroir on the apples. Two apples of the same variety growing 20 meters apart can have completely different soil conditions and sun exposure and thus look and taste completely different. Local varieties are the most interesting for Bordatto, both because they rarely contract diseases but also for their typicity – they are quite different from the apples that are used for Spanish Basque cider.
Today cider can and is drunk by everyone. But it hasn’t always been so. Along the coast and on the Spanish side of the border cider was traditionally the drink for sailors and fishermen. On the French side, typically in the more mountainous regions, it was considered the wine of poor people.
After discussing the historical heritage of cider it was time to taste. The two main ciders of Bordatto Etxaldea are Basa Jaun and Basandere. They both contain around 25 different varieties of apples, are harvested from September and onwards, and typically end fermentation in February. However the blend of apples differs between the two, as does the sugar level and acidity.
Bixintxo and Pascale control temperature in the cellar and use natural yeast. If the fermentation goes to fast you can loose some of the flavor, so they actively try to prolong it. Before the cider completely finishes fermentation it is bottled, so all their ciders are in a sense refermented in bottle.
”In Spanish cider they are looking for volatile aidity. In Jaxu people were used to drink it when they heard pomm!!! in the cellar.” – Pascale
2014 Basa Juan
The name Basa Jaun is derived from a Basque mythological creature that lives in the woods. The Basajaun are thought to build megaliths, protect flocks of livestock, and to have taught skills such as agriculture and iron-working to humans.
The Basa Jaun has a very clear and direct taste. It’s very consistent, with a medium length and a taste profile well-suited to for example charcuterie. Or as Pascale herself proclaimed; ”You drink one glass of this cider with cheese after a long meal and you are ready to start again.”
Basandere is Basajauns softer, more feminin companion. In Basque mythology it is also the female counterpart of Basajaun.
Hazy, almost silver color. Rich floral nose with aromas of orange zest, honey and lavender. Nice chalky grip in the mouth with reoccurring aromas and an elegant finish.
2015 Basa Jaun
In 2015 they had some rain in the beginning of autumn, which is quite unusual.
Elegant pale yellow color, a slight note of stable on the nose. Richer mouth feel than the 2014 and a bit rounder, with hints of apricot stone and nougat. Dry finish. It seems as if the 2015 Basa Jaun is going to evolve into something a bit more complex than the 2014. Bixintxo and Pascale reflected that it would probably go well with white meat, something with salt and sugar.
A vinaceous yellow hue. Aromas of wet grass, raspberry pips and common snowberry. The cider has a very pleasant, even balance and a long aftertaste with elements of nougat and Werthers Original.
The name Oreka means balance, and according to Bixintxo and Pascale it should be presented as an apple wine, not a cider. As such it has no carbonisation.
Aromas of red apple, wood chips and Roman salad. Nicely integrated acidity and medium length. Elegant, lifts nicely from the palate. Aftertaste of nougat, red apple peal, para nuts and goat cheese. When making cider they generally keep the lees out, but for the apple wines the lees are left in. In bottle since one month.
Txalaparta can mean a number of things. It is both a wooden percussion instrument closely related to cider houses, a racket and the sound a horse makes as it trots. The Txalaparta is picked later than the Basa Jaun and Basanderes, usually in the end of October. With apples you generally only have to keep a look out for perfect phenolic maturation. The risk of over-ripeness and galloping sugar levels is less immediate than when dealing with grapes, giving a bigger freedom with concerns to harvest dates. After picking the apples are fermented in barrel.
The cider has a rich golden color with an orange shimmer. Aromas of star anise, daikon and kumquats. The bubbles are quite feisty and the taste very direct and long. Aftertaste of crunchy red apples, with good tannins and structure.
In 2013 there was no Txalaparta made. For a while they thought they would have to do without in 2014 as well, but autumn winds proved beneficial and let the apples reach the right maturity. Txalaparta can also age for quite some time. The oldest vintage was tasted at a regal age of 10 years and was served with steak.
The name Mokofin means something along the lines of gourmand.
Deep amber color with hints of red. A very direct and distinct smell of Tupperware, sautéed onions and barley. The cider is sweet at first but ends delightfully dry with good tannins and juicy acidity. One of the most distinct dishes it has been served with was trout with butternut squash, foi gras and orange peel.
2014 Bi Hotz
Bi Hotz can be read in two different ways. As one word it means heart, but if you read the two words separately they mean too or double and cold. So too cold or very cold. Most of Bordattos orchards are at around 400 meters over the sea, but they do have trees even further up. The trees there keep their fruit very very late, and as the skin of the apples change, so the flavors change. After harvest they sift out the water by freezing the must, thus reducing it to half its volume. This means it takes around 15kg of apples to make one 375 ml bottle of Bi Hotz. Even though factors change they do try to make the Bi Hotz every year, or at least as often as possible.
Classic cider color. Pale rim and aromas of duck meat, raspberry, orange flesh and black currant. Very even and austere mouth feel with a bunch of tannins and gamy elements as well as blanched almonds. and apricot stone. Integrated acidity and hints of controlled oxidation. Ferments for a year before it reaches 10,5% alcohol. According to Bordatto it’s a perfect match with fromage de brebis.
The Joko is quite a unique cuvée, aptly named ‘The Game’. It consists of tannat picked at 15-20 hl/hectare in late October. Joko differs from a regular tannat in that apple spirits are added in order to stop fermentation and allow the wine to reach 17,5% alcohol.
Black color with red rim. Juicy aromas with elements of wet leather, ink, saddle and sharpening stone. Fiery, tastes of juniper, pencil, olives and prunes.
Many, if not all of the cuvées blew us away. Bordatto Etxaldeas consistency is admirable, and they kept giving us new and interesting perspectives on the art of cider making. As they walked us out to the car – Txapin and her bigger counterpart dancing around us with glee and dog-fueled admiration – we continued to speak of the if and why of the French Basque cider tradition. One thing though seems clear though; As long as Bordatto Etxaldea continue to explore the diversity and richness of the landscape around them and its apples French Basque cider will not only live on, but hopefully thrive.