On the steep, terraced vineyards of southeastern Roussillon in France, near the border with Spain, grapes are harvested by hand to produce Banyuls dessert wines. Strong winds, hot Mediterranean sun and relatively low rainfall contribute to their intense character, but it’s the winemaking process that defines them.
From Mutage to Maceration
A handful of grape varieties are used to produce Banyuls, but the most important is Grenache, left on the vine until the grapes are shriveled by the sun.
When the fermenting must reaches 5–10% alcohol, mutage takes place. This method, devised in the 13th century, stops fermentation by adding a neutral grape-based spirit. Port is produced in a similar way, but Banyuls is lower in alcohol—usually around 16% alcohol-by-volume, whereas Port is often around 20%.
The post-mutage maceration is then a crucial part of the process. Emmanuel Cazes, a vigneron who produces Banyuls at Les Clos de Paulilles, says that the alcohol helps extract color and tannins at this stage.
All About Aging
Different aging techniques can create Banyuls that range from intense red fruit to nutty and oxidized.
Some producers use oak casks topped up carefully to avoid oxidation, but the more traditional method, employed by Les Clos de Paulilles for its Banyuls Traditionnel, relies on demijohns. The wine is placed outdoors in the glass demijohns, where it’s directly exposed to sun and elements for 30 months. The temperature variations would destroy most wines, but instead encourages the development of Banyuls’ unique characteristics.
“The idea is to ‘shock’ the wine,” says Cazes. “The nice thing about this aging process is that you can open one of these bottles and drink it for many months without it changing, because the change has already been done in our cellar.”