When fall ushers in cooler weather and brightly-hued leaves, consumer drinking preferences change, too. Where summer demanded a light, flirty wine as carefree as the season, autumn speaks to drinks of warmth and depth. Enter Roussillon, a storied region in Southern France as famous for its dramatic landscapes as its ancient viticultural traditions. While a renaissance in winemaking is currently underway, the stalwarts of the land – Vins Doux Naturels – remain the region’s soul.
Vins Doux Naturels are semi-sweet wines that have been fortified with a neutral spirit to arrest fermentation, resulting in wines ranging from 15-18% alcohol. The process is called mutage and is similar to port. Several factors inform the different styles seen on the market. First, the grape variety used, ranging from Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc, Macabeu, to Muscat d’Alexandrie or Muscat à Petits Grains. Second, whether the vigneron exposes the wine to sun and oxygen or whether she protects the wine to retain lively fruit character. And third, the length of time the wine matures and which type of vessel the vigneron employs.
Wine lovers familiar with Vins Doux Naturels most likely know Banyuls. This widely recognized appellation of steep, terraced vineyards focuses on Grenaches, made into dense, berry-scented reds and bronzed, nutty tawnies. The latter style encompasses deliberate oxidation achieved through aging outdoors in glass bonbonnes and large, old oak barrels. These wines develop intense caramel flavors with a rancid-like nuttiness called Rancio. Banyuls is the only appellation to designate Grand Cru wines. To qualify for Grand Cru, 75% of grapes must be from Grenache Noir and wines must age in wood a minimum of two and a half years, though it’s not uncommon to leave them far longer. Dark, rich Banyuls pairs like wings to a bird with chocolate.
For the novice drinker, it’s easy to mix up Maury with Banyuls. Both regions produce a range of styles, though lean heavily on Grenaches, requiring a minimum 50 percent of the grape in red wines. Other styles made in Maury include ambré and blanc from white grapes Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu. Banyuls stands apart due to its position: it sits further inland and is blessed with a topography of dips and peaks, sitting near the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Muscat de Rivesaltes & Rivesaltes are the largest appellations producing Vins Doux Naturels. For Rivesaltes, similar styles can be found to Banyuls and Maury, though Muscat de Rivesaltes is an exception made exclusively with Muscat à Petits Grain and Muscat of Alexandria. The wines are bright, fragrant and floral, ranging in pale yellow to deep gold. High natural acidity keeps wines fresh rather than cloying, making for a delightful aperitif, especially poured over ice.
The allure of Vins Doux Naturels is not only their incredible range of flavors and styles, but versatility behind the bar and on the table. Add the wines to cocktails, or serve with cheese, fresh fruits, and desserts like tarts and cake. Even savory dishes with a sweet component like mango chutney or a sweet and sour recipe pair easily with Vins Doux Naturels. Always serve wines with a slight chill. Younger, fruity bottles are best between 46 – 54 Fahrenheit while older amber or tawnies are better between 55-59 Fahrenheit.
When air turns crisp with the advent of fall, Vins Doux Naturels offer an enjoyable alternative to spirits. They’re complex, deeply flavored, and warm the body when it’s cool outside. Of course, don’t forget Roussillon also produces mineral-soaked whites and earthy reds that also speak to the season. Whether serving game meat, savory mushrooms, or autumn seafood, you can’t miss with the wines of Roussillon.