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01 November 2010

France: Roussillon - Banyuls and Maury, "sweet seductive red Roussillon..."

Wine tasting & touring: "Banyuls & Maury, sweet seductive red Roussillon..."
Featuring Mas Amiel, Coume Mas, La Rectorie, Serrelongue, Soulanes, Tour Vieille, Vinci, Coume Majou, Mudigliza...

"My pick of some (25) of these red (and a few white) Vins Doux Naturels or vins mutés, as they're called in French: literally "natural sweet wines" or fortified wines, tasted in early October on a whirlwind tour of leading estates in north and south Roussillon. Plus words on how these delicious Grenache based wines are made and their different styles." Featured wineries: Amiel, Coume Mas, La Rectorie, Serrelongue, Soulanes, Tour Vieille, Vinci, Coume Majou, Mudigliza; and a new-release Maury from Mont Tauch.

Demijohns outside at Mas Amiel, by Vi Erickson

Much as I like Port in its differing forms, what gives Banyuls and Maury (also named after the places they come from) the edge, for my palate at least, is the simple fact that they're a touch less alcoholic: 16%-17% (sometimes a bit more such as La Tour Vieille's sublime "Meditation Wine" reviewed below) as opposed to around 20% for Port. And it's difficult to resist the charm that seductive Grenache somehow brings to these Vins Doux Naturels (VDNs) or vins mutés: "natural sweet wines" or fortified wines. Anyway, as for a few educational words about these sumptuous stonking reds (mostly): I wrote the following paragraph previously in a blurb on La Coume du Roy, who produce pretty much all imaginable styles of Maury from "modern" to extremely old, which attempts to summarise the differences in grape handling, winemaking and maturation.
There are essentially two styles of Maury, on a basic level; in reality, there are almost as many as any producer wishes to make! (Ed: same principle for Banyuls, although clearly a different climate by the sea unlike Maury further north, inland and in a valley). Both use mainly the same variety: "black" Grenache as the French call it; and Macabeu, Grenache blanc and/or Grenache gris for the rarer white. The more (or less depending on the cuvée, release date etc.) oxidised aged one, where (for red) the grapes undergo a 4-5 day maceration on skins (or less even) and short fermentation to obtain some colour and desired sugar level; then are pressed and the juice fortified with spirit (leaving about 100 grams/litre residual sugar on average). The other style is said to date from around the mid 1980s: muté sur grains, meaning the entire must with the crushed berries still macerating in it is fortified, stopping fermentation with around 80-85 g/l RS; followed by 2 to 4 weeks maceration on the skins before pressing (avoiding contact with oxygen), which gives much richer colour and tannins. This type of "modern" Banyuls/Maury is usually bottled relatively soon, depending on the specific (sub)style you want - after a period in vat or filled-up barriques - and sometimes aged a little longer in bottle before release (so, technically similar to Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage Port, or Ruby for lower-priced blends), depending on if and how long in barrel. Whereas, the traditional approach is to mature the wine in large old casks and/or vats, and not usually topped up, or even glass demijohns outside, to promote oxidation; like e.g. Banyuls 'Grand Cru' or Tawny Port styles.

Entrance to Domaine de la Rectorie,  by Vi Erickson 

Pierre Parcé at La Rectorie in Banyuls-sur-mer (above) shed some interesting light on how the Parcé brothers, after taking on the family vineyards in the 1980s, came to influence the launch of those "new-wave" Banyuls VDNs. Paraphrasing his words: firstly, by understanding some of the reasons why the traditional oxidised styles continued to be made and history behind them. Part of the reason was the totally isolated nature of many of the area's vineyards at that time with no access roads. This often dictated having to pick all the grapes in one spot in one go and loading them up in a cart under the hot sun, while everything was picked; as it was just too awkward to go back and forth to the cellar several times to unload. Hence, when the grapes did finally arrive, they weren't exactly in the best health; so the skins were discarded quickly by pressing off the must after a short time fermenting, if at all, and fortifying it as soon as possible. The resultant low-colour wines were then aged for long periods of time, in big old casks that weren't topped up and/or outside in demijohns even to promote oxidative ageing, to compensate for any faults and create complex flavours from the maturation process itself (as long as not left too long...)
The "new thinking" already gathering more momentum in the 80s went along the lines of "what if..." Given that grapes could now be delivered to the cellar as and when you wanted them, coupled with much better equipment and technical winemaking know-how; meaning the skins are in perfect condition and can be fermented with the must, like making a regular red wine, to extract colour and tannins. This must is then "muté sur grains", i.e. the fortifying spirit added onto the fermenting berries before pressing. This has an added advantage, as alcohol actually promotes greater extraction while the must is left to macerate. After pressing, the juice is typically, depending on the desired style, protected from oxygen by transfer into inert tanks before bottling or into barrels that are kept filled to the brim. These wines are thus similar to vintage or late bottled vintage Ports, for example, rather than the long cask-aged, oxidised styles that are closer to Tawnies.
Another simply commercial reason for developing young fruity muté sur grains Banyuls wines, was to be able to sell them much sooner. As the Parcé's were pretty much starting from scratch, they had no old maturing stocks like the big co-ops have always had (and some of their wines are very good, it has to be said); and it obviously takes a lot of time and investment to store VDN wines for as long as it takes before they get really interesting. After starting the ball rolling, and extending the above-mentioned winemaking logic to those old-fashioned Banyuls styles (and, as I said, sometimes just plain too old); what if they made a deliberately oxidised, complex wine using grapes that were in perfect condition to begin with? The result: La Rectorie's extraordinary L'Oublée (see note below)...


To start, a word about wine "scores." You'll notice a departure from the usual "100-point" system proliferated across the site, as I just got plain bored of the latter narrow, although admittedly widely recognised, way of "assessing" wines. So, I've continued the schoolteacher theme here that I dreamed up a few months ago for a feature on the Ardèche, which uses a simpler scheme with one to three ticks, as below, echoing those already popular "star" ratings you see around. Still best to actually read my notes and comments at the end of the day, if that's not too dull. And, inevitably, I ended up giving some half-marks as well represented by a tick in brackets! These wines were sampled in October 2010 (unless stated otherwise) at the winery or at home.

√ = good √ √ = very good √ √ √ = fabulous


Scan down the Roussillon A to Z list for more wines and profiles on these producers including where to buy them. Prices quoted here are cellar door in euros or £ / $ retail in the UK or US.

Domaine des Soulanes 2009 Maury (Grenache blanc/gris with 90 grams/litre residual sugar (RS)) - enticing "mineral" vs sweet profile, could be interesting after a bit of time in bottle. √ €9 £11.75
Mas Amiel 2008 Maury (Grenache gris 110g/l RS, 15.5% alc.) - enticing mix of juicy, "mineral/stoney" and sweet aromas/flavours; fairly crisp and fresh underneath vs rich white/yellow fruits, a bit closed up but should turn into a very nice pudding or cheese wine. √ €15+
Domaine Serrelongue 2010 Maury (Grenache gris/Grenache blanc: from cask and not ready yet, obviously!) - lots of aromatic pear fruit, turning rich in the mouth with tasty honey notes vs refreshing acidity and cut; long finish with enticing zesty citrus vs sweetness (about 100g/l residual sugar). Should be good. √

Domaine des Soulanes
2009 Maury (Grenache) - lovely wild-fruit nose with blackberry and liquorice; good balance of sugar, dry tannins and cut of alcohol. √ €11 $24.99 £11.75
Maury "Hors d'Age" (Grenache blend of wines from 1992, 1993 & 1994) - complex toffeed ageing notes on the nose with lush liquorice coating in the mouth; very long and caramelised vs lovely savoury richness. √ √ $41.99
Mas Amiel
2006 Vintage Reserve Maury (Grenache) - seductively rich with savoury edges and light oak texture; again shows good balance of grip, lush black fruits and sugar; quite complex too. √ €20
L09 Vintage Privilege (Grenache passerillé = dried on the vine) - OK, so it's not technically Maury but... very raisin-ed and intense, intriguing and addictive too; pure blackberry and syrup aromas/flavours vs attractive dry tannins vs complex earthy tones. Wow, a one-off. √ √
Maury Prestige 15 Ans d'Age (Years Old on average) - beautiful "old Tawny" nose with molasses/treacle notes and cooked plums; meaty oxidised profile vs dark chocolate vs bite and cut vs intense "sweet/savoury" finish, roasted coffee and nuts too. √ √ √ €23
Click here for more Mas Amiel reviews and background including their superlative 1990, 1980 and 1969 vintages.
Domaine Serrelongue 2008 Maury (Grenache 80-90 RS) - lots of sweet black fruits underpinned by light wood texture, has nice freshness and tight tannins too making it quite restrained in style. €10 √
Domaine Vinci 2008 Inferno (Grenache 5 RS) - another non-Maury (and not even sweet, although it almost should be) sneaked into this feature, as "you know it makes sense." Very ripe and powerful nose, peppery and Port-y almost; crazy wine, punchy and rich with lots of liquorice and pepper plus a touch of underlying wood grain. Wow: very popular with the Brits, I'm told! A bit OTT on its own but worth a go, has plenty of flavour for sure in a dry Maury way! √ √ About €20 or £25
Cave Mont Tauch 2001 Réserve Maury (Grenache 16%) - treacle toffee liquorice and prune vs quirky "gassy" oxidised maturing nose with Bovril gravy, toasted coffee beans and leather tones; sweet smooth palate with a bit of kick (but not OTT) then more savoury finish with some lingering dry tannins. 2nd tasting (this wine kept quite well for a week, and the last drop was used for a very nice sauce): less "quirky" and "cheesy" with more toffee and raspberry cordial vs savoury/leather edges; smooth and sweet still with that light kick and touch of tannin, nice "sweet/savoury" finish. √ UK: £7.49 37.5cl at Morrison's.
Coume Majou 2008 Jolo Maury (98 y-o Grenache 17% alc.) - lovely dark fruits, damson and blackberry, beginning to turn tobacco-y; attractive bite and solid tannins, not very sweet actually with lively mouth-feel; a bit fiery at the moment but it's a delicious concentrated "vintage" style Maury. Tasted in March 2010. √ √
Mas Mudigliza (tasted summer 2010)
2008 Maury - delicious ripe black cherry fruit with savoury leather edges; tannins softening up nicely although still has good bite vs sweetness (75-80 g/l residual sugar = less than many Maurys), youthful fiery finish vs lovely balance of "sweet/savoury" fruit. √ √
2009 Maury (from tank) - very black cherry and liquorice, more intense and lush with nice peppery touches; tasty sweet vs dry finish, promising.

Domaine La Tour Vieille 2008 Banyuls (Grenache blanc & gris) - nutty and honeyed with integrated wood grain tones; attractive fruit and texture vs punchy alcohol, sweet vs "mineral" finish. Promising. √ €10 50cl
Domaine La Rectorie L'Oublée (Grenache gris 16.5%): pressed straightaway, fermented then fortified, 10+ years ageing in large tuns then barriques outside before bottling. Quite brownish/red in colour, very different nose with nutty (walnut/pecan) vs dried raspberry/apricot/sultana profile; nutty tangy vs sweet raisin and sultana flavours, delicious complex and lingering finish. √ √ √

Domaine La Tour Vieille
2006 Banyuls Vendanges (mostly Grenache) - lightly oxidised with meaty edges vs damson and liquorice; plum jam flavours vs savoury and quite mature finish. √ €10 50cl
2006 Banyuls Rimage mise tardive (three and a half years in casks filled up to the top) - spicier with more coconut oak apparent vs rich "sweet/savoury" fruit; grippier more powerful mouth-feel then quite tight on the finish actually, surprising young still and impressive. √ √ €15
Banyuls Reserva (4-5 years ageing) - more caramelised nose with cooked raspberry jam aromas, kind of Madeira/Tawny cross springs to mind; big tannins still vs rich fruit, complex tasty and savoury finish although it's pretty sweet though too. √ √ (√) €13
Cuvée Francis Cantié - roasted coffee beans and strawberry jam on the nose, pretty intense in the mouth with nuttier characters then a bit more of a kick too; but that attractive "sweet/savoury" thing takes over and it's surprisingly subtle in the end. √ √ €15 50cl
Vin de Méditation (Solera-style, 18%) - amazingly intricate "red Madeira" nose, very intense and nutty; sweet raspberry and pecan nut flavours, finishing with very different profile to that initial nose as new aromas/flavours keep rolling across your tongue. Wow. √ √ √ €50 50cl
Coume del Mas
2007 Galateo Banyuls (Grenache, 16% & 100g RS) - lovely black fruits with meaty edges; attractive fruity "winey" flavours and texture, still firm and powerful softened by cherry liqueur notes and sweetness. Available in 6cl or 10cl flasks. √ €15 50cl
2007 Quintessence Banyuls (Grenache, 16.5% & 80g RS) - richer, more complex and a touch oakier with more savoury / oxidised edges; more oomph and extracted lush fruit vs big tannins adding dry bite, closes up on the finish. √ √ (√) €26 50cl
2009 Quintessence Banyuls (Grenache low-yielding 70-80 year-old vines, barrel sample) - deep purple/black colour, still showing a bit of toasty chocolate oak vs very rich "Black Forest Gateau" fruit; solid firm mouth-feel, almost "fresh" despite its sweet finish balanced by grippy tannins. Lovely. √ √
Domaine La Rectorie
2008 Banyuls Rimage "mise précoce" (Grenache 16.5%) - which means early bottling: after fortifying "sur grains," this had a further 2-week maceration on skins then pressed, held in vats briefly then bottled. Delicious dark chocolate and black cherry with violet aromas too; rich and sweet vs firm and spicy, nice lush vs tight and grippy finish. √ €11 50cl
2007 Cuvée Léon Parcé Banyuls (Grenache 16.5%) - initially same winemaking as above but then goes into (full) casks for 18 months. Similar fruit profile but meatier / more savoury; chunkier tannins too somehow although rounder as well, nice sweet vs structured mouth-feel with chocolate undercurrent. √ √

Related features:
St-Bacchus Awards 2009 including a trio of star Banyuls/Maury co-operative wines: "Camille Descossy" Le Dominicain, "Mise Tardive" Cornet & Cie, "Vieille Réserve" Vignerons de Maury.
Other recommended Banyuls and Maury producers on my "Roussillon - French Catalonia" pages: Berta-Maillol, Mas Blanc, Calvet-Thunevin, Fontanel, Mas Lavail, Clos Paulilles, Piétri-Géraud, Pouderoux, La Préceptorie, Saint-Roch, Schistes, Traginer.
A few more sexy red VDN stylists under the Rivesaltes appellation: Caladroy, Casenove, Cazes, Comelade, Hylari, Puig-Parahÿ, Rossignol, Rouaud, Sarda Malet, Valmy, Vaquer.
More generic info @ www.roussillon.wine

All rights © Richard Mark James November 2010

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.