In sheer scope, France is responsible for an impressive variety of different wines, each reflecting the uniqueness of a region, people, cuisine and vine culture. Nowhere is this truer than in the Mediterranean region of Roussillon, home to the unique vin doux naturel wines.
As a group of specialty wines, Roussillon vins doux naturel (the local shorthand is simply VDN) include those carrying the appellations of Banyuls, Rivesaltes and Maury, with Banyuls the best known and arguably the highest quality. Stylistically, there are differences that distinguish these three Roussillon wines such as grape varieties and aging regimens. Additionally, and this can be confusing, the names identify both the special VDN wines and the Roussillon towns of Banyuls (technically Banyuls-sur-Mer) and Rivesaltes.
The literal translation of vin doux naturel is “natural sweet wine,” but that doesn’t fully explain the nature of these wines. Standard fermentation of high-sugar grapes leaves a wine with some residual sweetness, at more-or-less normal alcohol. Vin doux naturel wines are made by a technique known as mutage, whereby higher alcohol from longer-hang-time grapes is added to the fermenting juice arresting the fermentation, leaving a sweet partially fermented “wine.” Consequently, these half-wines, strengthened to between 15% and 18% alcohol, offer flavors that are more grapy than winy, with aging also playing a big part in the character of VDN wines.
VDN wines are made from a range of grapes including Grenache Noir, Malvoisie du Roussillon, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris, Macabeau and Muscat. For Banyuls, Grenache Noir grape must is macerated in contact with the skins, often for extended periods. White and rose VDNs go through normal fermentation. Except for Muscat and reds that are intended to be drunk young, VDNs are aged in wood and glass for an astounding range of 30 months to 20 years.
The aging takes on various forms. If wood is used, the winemaker may opt for barrels, foudres (large oak ovals) or demi-muids (approx. 160 gal. open vats), sometimes storing the containers in the open air where maximum exposure to the elements accelerates the aging process, developing a complexity known as rancio, a powerful smell and taste that can be like overripe fruits, or even “rancid” butter. Some producers of fortified grape wines and spirits believe that 15 years is the limit for aging in wood and then the wine should be put in glass demijohns for further holding, to avoid excessive rancio character.
A variation of this open-air aging places the VDN in capped glass demijohns that are also stored outdoors. Some wineries have cobbled together a sort of French-style solera, resulting in a form of fractional aging and blending. I’ve seen the bombas used just over the border in Catalonia and soleras in Jerez, but the row upon row of glass bonbonnes outside a few wineries, was an unexpected sight in the Roussillon region of France during my recent visit to the region.
Known for dramatic mountainside terraced vineyards, Banyuls is not the largest VDN producer but it is the best known. Stretched out over more than 2,000 acres, the AOC includes the scenic coastal towns of Banyuls, Collioure, Port-Vendres and Cerbere that crowd the southeastern edge of Roussillon on the way to the frontier with Spain. Some of the terraces are so steep that growers use a mule or a cable car to transport grapes and tools used for tending the vines. This form of labor-saving ingenuity is also applied on the steeply sloped vineyards along Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.
Grenache Noir is the dominant grape, with a minimum of 50% required for a Banyuls and 75% for Banyuls Grand Cru, a designation not used or favored by a lot of Banyuls producers. Grape quality varies in Banyuls, requiring the addition of alcohol while the juice is still macerating on the skins, producing a wide range of flavors many with nuances of freshly crushed grapes. There is no limit as to how long a Banyuls must be aged and the process can be carried out indoors or outdoors, in large wood casks, barrels or slender-necked glass bonbonnes. Deciding on the length of time to age a Banyuls in oak or glass depends on whether the finished wine is to be young and fruity or layered with mature fruit notes and other components unique to extended aging or higher alcohol wines. Outside aging develops a form of rancio, achieved by the open-air aging regimen that pushes the wines beyond oxidation to maderization. Although there are some similarities, the Banyuls I tasted while in Roussillon that some winemakers suggested had a hint of rancio sec, did not have that cheesy metallic smell and taste you get from long-aged grain and grape spirits.
Just about every Banyuls winery I visited over a period of four days, made an earlier-drinking, an extended age or both types of wines. The following Roussillon wineries produce Banyuls of note: Domaine La Tour Vielle, Domaine Madeloc, Mas Amiel. I also liked the VDN wines and food made by Domaine St. Sebastien, a small winery, with an airy restaurant facing the harbor in the coastal town of Banyuls sur Mer.
Inland from Banyuls and higher in the hills, at the northern limits of the Cotes du Roussillon-Village zone, are the VDN wines of Maury. The dominant variety in Maury is Grenache Noir (same as Banyuls), planted on the famous schist soils of the area. Roussillon is, in fact, a geologic mixture of various soils including limestone, schist, granitic sand, gneiss and pebbles. Maury VDNs are sweet and red, sometimes with a hint of rancio derived from extended aging in cement tanks, wood casks or glass demijohns. Youthful Maury is similar to Banyuls with layers of ripe berry flavors, although my impression is that Maury VDNs are more tannic when young than are Banyuls.
The Maury VDN wines that I tasted in Roussillon and can recommend are from Domaine des Schistes in Estagel and Mas Amiel in Maury.
Rivesaltes is the name of a town in northeastern Roussillon and the name itself means “high (river) banks.” This is Muscat country, producing more than 70% of France’s Muscat production in Muscat de Rivesaltes, one of two large Roussillon appellations, the other being Rivesaltes. As a specific wine type, Muscat de Rivesaltes is not limited to the area around the town of Rivesaltes but can legally be produced just about anywhere within the Roussillon region. Rivesaltes, on the other hand, while generous with its appellations, excludes the wines of Banyuls.
Muscat de Rivesaltes may be made from Muscat of Alexandria (called by some Roussillon winemakers as “Alexander Muscat”), although the once-ignored Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains is now making a comeback. Improvements in the vineyards and better winemaking have boosted the quality of Muscat de Rivesaltes. The more common Rivesaltes wines may be made from a range of grapes including the two Muscats allowed for Muscat de Rivesaltes, the Grenache trio (Blanc, Noir, Gris) and a local variety called Malvoisie du Roussillon. In style, Rivesaltes can be like sweet white wines without skin contact, or macerated for long periods of time to extract maximum color and flavor. Some Rivesaltes VDNs are labeled Tuile (tawny) or Ambre (amber) indications of oxidative aging. Muscat de Rivesaltes and Rivesaltes are normally aged in oak casks of all ages and sizes, in a solera, or in glass bonbonnes.
All of the Rivesaltes VDN wines I tasted in Roussillon and can recommend carry the Muscat de Rivesaltes appellation and include wines from Domaine Emile Cazes in Rivesaltes, Domaine Piquemal in Espira de l’Agly, Domaine Singla in Saint Laurent de la Salanque and Domaine des Schistes.
Roussillon is a land of many delightful contrasts, not the least of which is it’s wide range of white, rose and red table wines and the pleasures of vin doux naturel wines from Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes.
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