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Ep 365: Vins Doux Naturels -- the Underrated, Elegant Wines of Southern France

Wine for Normal People

Release Date: 03/08/2021

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Vins doux naturels (VDNs), translated to ‘naturally sweet wines’, are some of the most historic yet underestimated wines in France. These wines are made using the process of mutage – adding neutral grape spirit/alcohol – to fermenting wine in order to halt fermentation and leave sugar in the wine (they aren’t REALLY naturally sweet wine, although producers will say you are preserving the natural sweetness of the wine so that’s the counterpoint).

Image of Rivesaltes: WinesoftheRoussillon.com

The technique of mutage was created in Roussillon in 1285 by Arnaud de Villeneuve, physician of the Royal House of Barcelona from 1281 to 1310 and a professor of the University of Montpellier. It is the same process used to make Port. Here the wine must be around 6% alcohol by volume when grape spirit is added to kill the yeast and bring the alcohol in the wine to 15-18% ABV. Wines retain sugar and this base wine can go many different directions depending on what the producer wants to present in the bottle.

Although these wines can be made with more than 20 different grape varieties, two take primacy: Muscat blanc à petit grains for the white and Grenache noir for the red.

  • Grenache is great as a young wine but can also be good if aged for years in old oak barrels, sometimes large glass jars (called bonbonnes or demi-johns) developing complexity and tertiary aromas (tobacco, saddle, mocha)
  • Muscat has fresh, grapey aromas, and naturally high acidity so the resulting sweet wines are very balanced. These grapes get more flavor and color if the producer wants to put the juice in contact with the skins and, like the reds, they can also be aged oxidatively

 

Vins Doux Naturels of the Languedoc

We begin the show in the Languedoc, which only produces white vins doux naturels (VDNs) of the Muscat grape. Each of these wines is made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and made in a non oxidative style to show the ripe fruit flavors, honeyed notes and richness contrasting with the acidity of the grape. Here are the four VDN appellations of the Languedoc, all of which are fortified with neutral grape spirit to 15% - 18% alcohol and a minimum of 11% residual sugar (Saint Jean de Minervois has a minimum of 12.5% RS). These wines are all golden in color and made of white grapes:

 

  • Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois: Vineyards are at elevation so the wines have a better balance of acidity, more elegance, and are more complex
  • Muscat de Frontignan: the biggest area for VdN in the Languedoc, these wines range in quality but Frontignan has great historic importance as it probably contains France’s earliest vineyard sites and was certainly the country’s first VdN appellation
  • Muscat de Lunel is small and the local co-op makes many of the wines. The best have floral honeyed notes
  • Muscat de Mireval is right next to the coast, immediately northeast of Frontignan and the wines, dominated by co-op production are rarely seen outside of France

 

Vins Doux Naturels of Roussillon

Roussillon was incorporated into France in 1659, but before that was part of Spain, which it borders. There is a very set Catalan influence in this area, which is a hybrid of Spanish and French culture in many ways. Roussillon is shaped like an amphitheater and borders the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees & the Corbières Mountains. This sunniest region of France has rivers which shape the landscape and the terroir.

 

Roussillon is the epicenter of vins doux naturels, making 80% of all VDN. It makes white, and more interestingly, reds whose flavors you will not find anywhere else. After mutage, the VdNs are made reductively (like regular wine where you try to avoid contact with oxygen to maintain fresh flavors) or oxidatively, with exposure to air for varying lengths of time. On the wines of the Roussillon you will see the following labels:

 

  • Wines that are aged without oxygen (topped off barrels/reductive) and are fruity and strong:
    • Blanc
    • Rosé
    • Rimage (used for Banyuls)
    • Grenat (used for Maury, Rivesaltes)
    • If they have a bit of age but are still reductive you will may see recolté or vendange on the bottle
  • Wines that are aged oxidatively in barrels that are not topped off, thus concentrating flavors and giving the wines more character (similar to tawny Port, rosé is never aged this way, BTW)
    • Ambré: Whites that are oxidatively aged
    • Tuilé: Reds that are oxidatively aged
    • Rancio: VERY rare category of wine. Either whites or reds aged for so long that they taste almost like Madeira. They are aged in glass bonbonnes/demi-Johns that are kept outside or in attics to gain exposure to the temperature extremes to intensify flavor
    • Hors d’Age: Anything aged more than 5 years before release, normally oxidatively aged

Vins Doux Naturel aging in bonbonnes Image Source: Vig'nette

 

 

Roussillon Wines/Areas

 Muscat de Rivesaltes can be made two Muscat varieties blended in varying ratios:

  • Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (blend must be at least 50%) which contributes aromas of tropical, citrus fruits (lemon)
  • Muscat of Alexandria which offers aromas and flavors of flowers, herbs (mint) and peaches
  • The wine mellows over time to have honeyed, baked fruit flavors

 

Rivesaltes is France's largest sweet-wine appellation, in terms of area and volume. Rivesaltes wines are blends or single varieties. Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Grenache Noir and Macabeu are the main grapes used

  • When made from white varieties they can be Rivesaltes Ambré (nutty and caramelized), rancio (Madeira-like, baked notes) or Hors d’Age (aged 5+ years)
  • Rivesaltes Rosé is a fresh, fruity wine made mainly of Grenache Noir. It is aged reductively
  • Rivesaltes Rouge is made mainly of Grenache Noir. It can be Grenat (reductive), Tuilé (oxidative) and for rare bottles, rancio and hors d’age when oxidatively aged

 

 

Maury Doux is in northern Roussillon on steep limestone cliffs at the beginning of the Pyrenees foothills. Maury's vins doux naturels are produced mainly from the Grenache grape varieties.

  • Maury Blanc is made with mainly Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris and aged reductively. There are oxidative versions -- Maury Ambré and Hors d’Age
  • Maury Rouge is made with a minimum of 75% Grenache noir with Grenache Blanc, Gris, Carignan, Syrah, Macabeu (max 10%). Similar to Rivesaltes, there are Grenat, Tuilé, hors d’age, and rancio versions. Wines labeled with récoltevendangeor vintage must have aged a minimum of 12 months in an airtight environment, making them a nonoxidative style of VDN.

Image of Maury: WinesoftheRoussillon.com

 

Banyuls is one of the world's very few fortified red wines. Its best sites are on steep slopes or narrow terraces facing the sea. All Banyuls are made mainly from Grenache grapes of various colors.

  • Banyuls Rouge is required to be at least 50% Grenache Noir. These wines are the best pairings with all manner of chocolate. These classifications are different from Rivesaltes and Maury
    • Rimage is aged reductively and bottled early. It has black fruit and chocolate flavors
    • Rimage Mis Tardive is Rimage that is aged for 1-3 years
    • Banyuls Tuilé, rancio, and hors d’age are aged oxidatively
  • Banyuls Blanc is made with Grenache blanc and Grenache Gris. It can be ambré, rancio, and hors d’age
  • Banyuls Rosé is young and fresh, made of Grenache Noir and reductive

Banyuls Grand Cru is at least 75% Grenache that is aged for a minimum of 30 months in oak – so all are slightly oxidized. They can be labeled dry/sec/brut (all are ok to use) as long as it has <5% sugar

 

Vins Doux Naturels of the Rhône

  • Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise Vin Doux Naturel is made only of Muscat à Petit Grains Blanc and Muscat Noir. Mutage brings it to a minimum of 15% alcohol. It is sweet, white, rich, but with a floral delicacy.

 

  • Rasteau has become an important dry red wine cru of the southern Rhône but this area also makes VDN in small quantities. The wines must be at least 90% Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc. The VDNs are mostly red but some white and rosé also made. All are best consumed young.
  • Reds: Grenat, tuilé, hors d’age, rancio
  • Whites: Blanc, ambré

Rasteau AOC: Image from Vins-Rhone

At minimum I hope you try Banyuls with some chocolate or the Muscat of your choice with fruit or nut tart or your crème brûlée. They make every meal complete and are such a bargain for what they are!

 

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