Naturally Sweet

A quick guide to the delectable vins doux naturels of southern France.


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Vins doux naturels (VDNs), or naturally sweet wines, have a long history rooted in the South of France. In 1285, Arnau de Vilanova—a director of the University of Montpellier and doctor at the court of Majorca—discovered mutage, the basis behind this unique style of wine.

Similar to Port, VDNs are fortified with a neutral grape spirit to stop the yeast before fermentation is complete and all sugars have been converted into alcohol. The wines retain some naturally occurring sugar, perceived as sweetness on the palate. The final alcohol level varies depending on the regulations of the appellation d’origine protégée (AOP), although most have a minimum required content of 15% abv.

“We have a great knowledge in the production of vins doux naturels,” says Éric Aracil, export manager for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR). Roussillon remains the cradle of the style, he says, producing a minimum of 80% of the VDNs in France today.

These lightly fortified sweet wines often exhibit extremely high quality at remarkably affordable. —L.B.

Banyuls

First recognized as a protected area of production in 1936, the wines from AOP Banyuls are made predominantly from Grenache Noir, which must comprise at least 50% of the blend.

Banyuls Grand Cru selections, which are only produced in the best vintages, must contain at least 75% Grenache and spend a minimum of 30 months aging in oak. Other varieties used include Carignan, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu, Malvoisie, Muscat à Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie.

Throughout the appellation, the vines are planted on steep slopes or on narrow terraces held in place by low walls facing the sea. This is tough terrain to farm.
Vinified by direct pressing or maceration, Banyuls wines are matured in bottles, foudres, barrels, demi-muids, glass demijohns or bonbonnes.

There are many different styles produced in Banyuls today, each with different requirements that result in selections of varying character and intensity.

These types include blanc, ambré and tuilé. Other terms that may appear on labels are hors d’âge, rancio, rimage and rosé. The rancio designation is linked to the oxidative characteristics that may be present in the final wine. —L.B.

93 Gérard Bertrand 1951 Legend Vintage (Banyuls). Gérard Bertrand USA. Cellar Selection. —L.B.
abv: 16.5%                             Price: $300

89 M. Chapoutier 2010 Rimage (Banyuls). Terlato Wines International. —L.B.
abv: 16%                                Price: $29/500 ml

Maury Doux

Although AOC Maury dates back to 1936, the area has evolved to include many styles of wine. In 2011, the newly recognized Maury Sec led to a name change of the original appellation, from Maury to Maury Doux, to avoid confusion.

Maury Doux can be produced in ambré or tuilé styles, with other possible modifiers like hors d’âge, rancio, blanc and grenat.

Ambré and blanc styles are produced from white-fleshed grapes like Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu and Muscat (maximum of 20%), while tuilé and grenat styles are made from a minimum of 75% Grenache Noir, with possible additions of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeu (maximum of 10%).

Wines labeled with récolte, vendange or vintage must have aged a minimum of 12 months in an airtight environment, making them a nonoxidative style of VDN. By contrast, Maury hors d’âge requires at least five years of aging in an oxidative environment, resulting in wines with mature aromas and flavors, great depth and long cellaring potential.

The Maury vineyards are based in hills of black marl and schist, which lend a distinct minerality and concentration to the resulting wines. —L.B.

91 Mas Amiel NV Cuvée Spéciale 10 Ans d’Âge (Maury). North Berkeley Imports. Editors’ Choice. —L.B.
abv: 16.5%                               Price: $30

90 Domaine de la Coume du Roy 2008 Maury. Bradley Alan Imports LLC. —L.B.
abv: 16.5%                               Price: $24/500 ml

Rivesaltes

Covering 68 villages of the Pyrénées-Orientales and nine villages of the Aude, Rivesaltes is the largest appellation for vins doux naturels. Three rivers—the Agly, the Têt and the Tech—cross the land, creating hills and tiered terraces that span a range of soil types.

Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Grenache Noir and Macabeu are the main varieties used in production of Rivesaltes VDNs, although Malvoisie can also be included. Rivesaltes ambré can also incorporate Muscat, but the variety must not represent more than 20% of the blend.

There are four main types of Rivesaltes: ambré, grenat, tuilé and rosé. Rivesaltes rosé is the newest addition to the region, officially recognized in 2011. It is vinified entirely from Grenache, at a cool temperature to retain lively fresh-fruit qualities and with brief skin contact to give the wine a vibrant color.

Most Rivesaltes are aged oxidatively for periods of time that vary according to their classifications. Hors d’âge can be added to ambré and tuilé wines that have been aged for at least five years. Most are aged longer, even up to 20 years. —L.B.

93 Domaine Cazes 1996 Ambré (Rivesaltes). Robert Kacher Selections. Editors’ Choice. —L.B.
abv: 15.6%                               Price: $24/375 ml

89 Domaine Singla 2003 Héritage du Temps (Rivesaltes). Five Grapes. —L.B.
abv: 15.5%                              Price: $35

Languedoc-Roussillon Muscats

Muscat-based VDNs are produced throughout Languedoc and Roussillon, including Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois, Muscat de Lunel, Muscat de Mireval and Muscat de Rivesaltes.

Muscat de Rivesaltes is the largest Muscat-based appellation in France. It can be made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie. The Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains provides intense aromas of exotic tropical and citrus fruits, while the Muscat d’Alexandrie contributes notes of ripe fruits and white flowers.

The Languedoc-based Muscat appellations represent a wide range of terroirs. Muscat de Frontignan is largely sourced from calcareous soils, Muscat de Lunel’s vineyards are mostly clay-based, Muscat de Mireval’s terroir boasts a high content of limestone fragments from the Jurassic era and Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois covers a mix of limestone and red clay soil types.

These wines are produced from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. They’re all made in a nonoxidative style, resulting in wines of great freshness and ripe fruit flavors, with a delicate sweetness and honeyed accent that gives richness and length. —L.B.

91 Domaine Cazes 2008 Biodynamie (Muscat de Rivesaltes). Robert Kacher Selections. Editors’ Choice. —L.B.
abv: 15%                                  Price: $21

88 Les Vignerons de la Méditerranée NV Les Petits Grains (Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois). Pasternak Wine Imports. —L.B.
abv: 15%                                  Price: $14/375 ml

Muscat de Beaumes de Venise

Noted authority Pierre Charnay asserts in his encyclopedic Vignobles & Vins des Côtes du Rhône that Muscat was grown here at least as far back as the 14th century.

Muscat de Beaumes de Venise may be made only from Muscat à Petits Grains, but the grape skins may be either golden (blanc) or dark (noir). The golden version predominates in the vineyards, but the local cooperative does make an intriguing red version.

The cooperative accounts for much of the region’s production, but nearly all of the major Rhône négociants, like Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Vidal-Fleury, include Muscat de Beaumes de Venise in their ranges, and numerous individual estates exist as well.

Sheltered from the mistral’s direct impact by the uplifted limestone of the Dentelles de Montmirail, the Muscat vines achieve high levels of ripeness in the region’s sandy soils. The maximum yields permitted are only 30 hectoliters/hectare—less than for Châteauneuf-du-Pape—and the resulting wines are concentrated and intense.

On their home turf, Muscats de Beaumes de Venise are mostly served as apéritifs. Another popular local treatment is to pour some of the wine into half of a melon, adding the warm, honeyed flavors to the refreshing coolness of the fruit. —J.C.

90 Domaine des Bernardins 2010 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Kysela Père et Fils. —J.C.
abv: 15%                                    Price: $31

89 Vignerons de Beaumes de Venise NV Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. William Harrison Imports. —J.C.
abv: 15%                                    Price: $NA

Rasteau

Fortified Rasteau was first made in 1934, making it a relatively new example of mutage. Since then, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for this sun-drenched section of the Rhône Valley.

First, it took off, gaining full appellation d’origine contrôlée status in time for the 1943 vintage. But recently, sales of VDN Rasteau have slowed, displaced in popularity by the dry reds, which became a cru of the Rhône Valley in 2010.

Today, only a few producers export VDN Rasteau to the United States. The local cave cooperative is the largest and most consistently available, but private estates to look out for include Domaine Bressy Masson and Domaine des Escaravailles.

VDN Rasteau must contain at least 90% Grenache Noir, but many eschew other varieties entirely. The wines are Port-like, combining sweetness with soft tannins, dark plum and berry fruit and hints of raisin and cocoa, but they lack the aging potential of vintage Ports and are best consumed young.

Because of their dark fruit and chocolaty overtones, Rasteau VDNs can successfully pair with some chocolate desserts, but perhaps are better served alongside blue cheeses. Since they’re not as rich or alcoholic as Port, a second glass to contemplate on its own isn’t out of the question. —J.C.

90 Cave de Rasteau 2009 Signature (Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau). Fruit of the Vines, Inc. —J.C.
abv: 17%                                      Price: $28

86 Cave de Rasteau NV Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau. Fruit of the Vines, Inc. —J.C.
abv: 16%                                     Price: $20

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