Roussillon week (1): « Vins doux naturels » from the Roussillon; what’s in a name?

There is a particularly interesting but unjustly neglected group of wines produced down near France’s mediterranean border with Spain. In the region known as the Roussillon, dry wines now dominate production, but there was a time when the major part of the considerable local production was fortified, as is Port for exemple. For understandable historical reasons (in particular large scale fraud that took place in the early part of the 20th century as a consequence of phylloxera and the ensuing dearth of wine in Europe) these fortified wines were collectively named « Vins Doux Naturels » (VDN for short), which literally means Natural Sweet Wines (or Naturally Sweet Wines if you prefer). The problem with this term is perhaps that the way of making these wines, though very much historical as a process as some of my colleagues will probably explain this week, is far from « natural ». Then we also have the rare « Rancio » category, which are dry fortified and oxydised wines but which do not fall into the AOC category like the VDNs. When I say rare, just take a look at this wine region’s web site which does not make it very easy to find this category. Roussillon is France’s largest producer of fortified wines, accounting for 80% of the category.

The map below shows just how imbricated are the various appellations of the Roussillon area, both for dry wines and for the VDN family. In some cases, such as Banyuls/Collioure, or Maury, the geographical zones are identical for both types of wine, and, in the case of Maury, the name does not change. Never mind the complications, just taste these wines as they are among France’s hidden treasures and some of them can last for ever.

For those of our readers who are new to this type of wine, the process of fortifying a wine is probably worth a few words of explanation. To put it simply, it means adding some neutral alcohol (the proportions will vary according to the strength of the alcohol and also local practice) to a wine in order to help it to stand the rigours of long transport, variable storage temperatures, and the ravages of time, or all three. The process also, incidentally, effectively kills off any bacteria and other undesireable stuff. Maybe the producers of so-called « natural » wines (no connection by the way) should use this technique more often? Depending on when you add the alcohol to the wine or to the still fermenting grape juice, the wine can be sweet or dry. To take a couple of well-known examples from the wider world of wine, Sherry is usually dry because the alcohol is added after fermentation, whereas Port is sweet because the alcohol is added during fermentation. Another famous fortified wine is Madeira, from the eponymous Portuguese island in the Atlantic, and Madeira can be dry or sweet. Yeasts, which are the active agents in fermentation, dislike high levels of alcohol and will be inhibited, then killed, when these levels climb to above, usually, 15%. So fortified wines, whether dry or sweet, tend to have higher alcohol levels than unfortified wines. There are a few exceptions of course.

Now back to the Roussillon and the various sub-categories of VDNs and what they may taste like. I have taken samples of these from the interprofessional body that had the kindness to send them to me. I will try to make my comments on these wines of a general nature to some extent, but these are wines from individual producers so specific comments on each wine are inevitable. But the general idea is to show the reader the range of these wines in their styles and their different appellations. As always in France, this can get a little complicated so pay attention!

All these wines that are commented below (and shown in the photo above) were tasted at temperatures between 13° and 15°, which is what I would recommend. Don’t go any higher or you will increase the burning sensation from the alcohol, but you can go lower with the minor risk of masking some aromas.

Ranfio Cino, Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille; producer: Chrystel & Olivier Saperas, alcohol 15,5%; varieties: grenache gris et blanc

This producer is within the Banyuls appellation (and also produces wines under this appellation) but this style of wine does not have an AOC status. Never mind, two different IGP designations do allow it however, including this one. The nose is similar to that of a Fino Sherry: nutty with dried fruit and some hay. Perfectly dry on the palate, it is lively and has good length and balance too. This style of wine would be very good for tapas, especially based on sea-food, include the sometime powerfal taste of anchovies or sardines, then again also for hard cheeses. It also works ok with asparagus and artichokes, which can be tricky to pair with a wine.

I should warn the reader however that this is a style of wine that is not for all tastes : French people, unless they come from the Jura region, tend to find these aromas and flavours quite strange and indeed not very amenable. Those from England or the USA who have experienced and liked dry Sherries such as Finos or Manzanillas, or the driest versions of Medeiras, will probably enjoy these wines. I love them, but one cannot expect an enthusisastic reaction from all. Let’s call these rancio (rancid doesn’t sound so good, does it?) or flor wines (are they actually flor wines?) an acquired or cultural taste, which they will probably have to remain.

Château de Caladroy, Muscat de Rivesaltes VDN 2016, alcohol 15,5%; variety muscat (of course).

This is from what is perhaps the most popular and easy-to-like style of the whole VDN category, on account of its very seductively grapey perfumes of muscat. Other VDN Muscat appellations exist outside of this large one in the Roussillon, both in the Languedoc and in the southern Rhône. This wine is a particularly good example of the type with pronounced aromas of muscat and a strong floral accent reminiscent of honeysuckle or jasmin. It is tender, soft and sweet on the palate, evoking wild flower honey but with far more fluidity and a freshness that sharpens it towards the finish making it seem deceptivly light. Excellent as an aperitif or with fresh fruit or fruit salad.

l’Etoile, Banyuls Blanc VDN 2016, alcohol 16%, grape varieties unknown (usually grenache blanc or grenache gris, sometimes others)

Banyuls, which takes its name from a seaside town, is an exclusively VDN appellation that can come in many colours and types. This white version has a deep gold colour but on the nose it hints at being much less sweet than the Muscat de Rivesaltes that I just tasted. It is not particularly aromatic but I caught notes of dried white fruit and hay, then some citrus peel. The sweetness on the palate is indeed reasonable so the wine does not appear heavy or thick. This medium bodied wine of its type makes it suitable to go with blue cheeses or spiced dishes.

Lafage, Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’Age VDN (nv); alcohol 15%; varieties: various grenaches.

Rivesaltes is the broadest of the VDN appellations from a geographical point of view and it can produce all colours of VDN wines. I must say that I loved this particular wine, especially on the palate which is what really counts after all! True to its colour description in the category (ambré means amber), it has a bright coppery orange hue. Very complex and smoky nose with hints of caramel, rubber and dried fruits. Has all the complexity of an Oloroso sherry but with a bit more sweetness of course. Power, balance and length are all in line and perfect. I find this category particularly interesting or is this just a very good producer? Gives one a huge range of food options, such as blue or smoked cheeses, smoked ham, curry or other spiced food, or just on its own with some dried fruit. (It is also a fantastic buy at just 12,50 euros for a very elegant 50cl bottle!).

Château de Pena, Rivesaltes Tuilé Hors d’Age VDN; alcohol 16%; variety grenache noir 100%

This is deep amber or light brown in colour. The nose places the accent firmly on the side of burnt subtances such as charred wood, toffee or stewed plums, with a spicy undertone. This is a much richer and sweeter style that comes partly from the sugar and partly from the alcohol. Long and sweet, this could do the trick with Christmas pudding (ie, once a year at most), or, to be more practical, with a tarte tatin or a chocolate and fruit dessert.

Pietri Géraud, cuvée Méditerrannée 2013, Banyuls Traditionnel VDN; alcohol 16%; varieties 90% grenaches noir et gris, 10% carignan.

This has some oxydative evolution which places it in between the amber and the red types. These colour and oxydative variations can be found in most of the VDN appellations which can make things a little complicated.  The nose however is very fruity, with ripe plums and prunes, plus touches of leather and smoke, and even hot stones. Anyone say complex out there? Nice smooth texture with just a touch of firmness and a warm sensation from the alcohol. Surely a good match for a wide range of desserts and cheeses.

Baillaury, Cave de l’Abbé Rous, Banyuls Traditionnel 5 ans d’âge VDN; Alcohol 16%; varieties grenaches noirs & gris

Similar colour to the previous wine but a very different nose that reminded me mainly of bitter chocolate and burnt wood. We should never forget that wines are made by their producers and not by rules and regulations. It is also les sweet on the palate and indeed has a slightly auster feel to it with its firm, flat finish. Clearly one for chocolate.

Valmya, de cépage noble, Rivesaltes Grenat VDN; alcohol 16%; variety grenache noir.  

It may say « Grenat » in the category but the colur is in fact more a ruby red. This sub-category should therefore be grouped with the red wines that follow rather than with the amber ones that precede. The nose clearly confirms this red wine character; deep and smoky, packed with dark wild red and black fruit. I loved the intensity of this wine, as well as its balance between fruit and alcohol/sweetness. The chewy fruit character holds on to the finish within the sweetness. Why not try this with a game stew, although dark chocolate would work perfectly.


Domaine Pouderoux, Maury Grande Reserve 6 ans VDN; alcohol 15,5%,. variety grenache noir

I have greatly appreciated the wines of this producer on several occasions, and this one was no exception. Garnet red in colour, it shows restrained wild red and black berry fruit aromas, then comes a lovely texture with perfect balance between soft tannins and sweet fruit. Long and very savoury, with no trace of imbalance from the alcohol, this is an excellent wine! All chocolate desserts should work with it, but is is so enjoyable on its own or with a bit of cheese and some nuts.

Le Clos des Paulilles, Banyuls Rimage 2016 VDN; alcohol 16%; variety grenache noir

When Banyuls incorprates the « Rimage » extension, it means that the wines are similar in their approach to a Vintage Port in so far as they are deeply coloured,  bottled young and generally kept away from oxygen in order to maintain fresh fruit character. The ageing, if there is any, then takes place in bottles. On account of different grape varieties, these Banyuls and their equivalents from Maury tend to be softer and less tannic than their Douro equivalents.

This example is deep ruby and almost purple in colour, with a fine nose of preserved black fruit, intense but still quite closed, which is usual for this style and age of wine. The palate has great breadth and intensity of flavours, with tannins that are slightly grippy (although less than those of a Vintage Port of the same age). Good length with a slightly warm finish. Venison stew anyone? Or, more classically, cake, bitter chocolate or dried fruit and nuts. Maybe a cigar if you do that sort of thing too.

Jim’s signature icon is a bicycle, which is far more virtuous and ecologically sustainable than mine. Toys for boys I suppose. Red’s the colour, and this one comes from Italy. I might add, to quote from an old tv series  » I am not a number…and who is number one? » In any case, better tuck that right foot in before you get into the lean and go for the apex!




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