(This post was written by Jonathan Ray, his final article for the Saturday Telegraph, published 2nd October 2010).

They breed them tough in France's Sud Ouest. The Pays Basque-Béarn is serious rugby-playing, bullfighting country and, as I discover, serious eating and drinking country, too.

I am here with my old mates Jason Yapp and Tom Ashworth of Yapp Brothers as they criss-cross the region ferreting out new winemakers and reacquainting themselves with old. Their main targets are the wines of Irouléguy and Jurançon, but we manage also to take in more than our fair share of others, along with several restaurants, a rugby match in Biarritz, a bullfight in Dax and - I can't quite remember why now - a salsa festival, too. I know, I know, it's punishingly hard work, completely draining. I can't imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to be a wine buyer.

"It's vital to get a bit of local colour, you see," Jason declares. "To understand the wines you have to understand the folk who make them. They have a remarkable joie de vivre here and produce wines of great character and authenticity. In this age of bland homogenous brands, it's marvellous to see local people using traditional local varieties to make such distinctive wines."

On the steep slopes of Irouléguy, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, we meet Basque-speaking Peio Espil, whose family has been making wines at Domaine Ilarria for centuries. One of France's farthest-flung, least-known and smallest appellation contrôllées Irouléguy almost disappeared off the wine map in the lean post-war years and even today there are only nine independent vignerons making and bottling their own wines.

"It's the soil, the sun and the mountains that make our wines the way they are," Espil says. "I work closely with nature and am happy with what I get in return. I don't want accolades, I just want to make the best Irouléguy I can."

He certainly does that, with his dry savoury whites made from petit courbu and petit manseng, deeply-hued rosés from tannat and cabernet franc and bitter cherry reds from the same, with an added splash of cabernet sauvignon. They are characterful, tasty and unique.

"Historically it was always difficult to export our wines," Espil says. "Unlike most wine regions there is no river on which to ship them and it used to take at least two days just to ship them to Bayonne. As a result they remain little known and little tasted outside the region."

Espil makes just 2,500 cases a year, but the wines are delightful, characterised by fruit, softness and power. And they are spot-on partners for the cooking of his wife, Lucie.

Bayonne ham and rillettes de canard are followed by roast pork and pipérade, Ossau Iraty and Brebis cheese with blackberry jam, and gâteau basque. Everything is home-made and utterly delicious, even the bottle of Poire William that Espil insists we drain, having polished off buckets of his wine.

"Regional wines always taste better in situ," Tom remarks. "However good they taste in Britain - and they taste damn good - they never quite hit the heights they do when drunk with the sun on your back and a plate of local grub inside you."

It is a similar story in Jurançon, nearly 40 miles to the east. Here at Domaine Bellegarde, rugby fanatic Pascal Labasse makes exquisite late-picked sweet wines from gros and petit manseng, and some pretty potable dry ones too.

We sit outside, rolling hills and mountains before us, as he uncorks a succession of stunning older vintages. Unctious but not too cloying, the wines are deep orange in colour and crammed with rich, honeyed, marmaladey, sweet fruit. Crikey, they're good...

And they slip down so easily with the salty slices of fried Bayonne ham, tripe sausage, wild boar salami and home-made pâté and crusty French bread that Pascal's wife, Isabel, rustles up.

It's shirt-popping stuff, this wine-buying lark, and huge fun, too, with a succession of remarkably affable winemakers seemingly intent on getting us completely blotto.

They finally succeeded in Dax, where we join Labasse and some of his friends for the final corrida of the season with the legendary bullfighter, El Juli, topping the bill.

Last night was a late one, and I feel distinctly liverish. Certainly not as perky as Jason, who I don't think has had quite enough sleep. I think it's fair to say that his hangover has yet to kick in.

An early breakfast of chilled rosé, earthy Madiran and steaming dishes of  tête de veau and pieds de cochons is followed by a mid-morning wine tasting (with foie gras on toast) and a lunch of paella and one-per-person bottles of rosé. Then, for those still with us, it's beer and bullfight time. By now even Jason is flagging. "The wheels have finally come off, dear boy," he mumbles. "But momentum may yet see me through."

Scientists are baffled by the way-above-average longevity of people in the Sud Ouest and, having witnessed how they spend their leisure and working hours, I can see why. But they're a passionate bunch and I reckon their innate zest for life is what keeps them going so long.

It's a fascinating and - for an outsider - liver challenging trip and I can't think of a better way of ending six happy years as your wine correspondent. Cheers!