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06 September 2022

Roussillon: a dozen Vins Doux Naturels.

The fourth and final part of my summer Roussillon review features a (baker's) dozen Vins Doux Naturels (plural, VDN(s) for short), probably more naturally translated as (sweet) fortified wines, some of which are anchored in regional tradition while others are relatively 'modern'. Including whites - although their colour is often far from it for reasons explained below, a style called Ambré - and reds from Rivesaltes, as well as Maury and Banyuls, also white and red, of various types and ages.
The Maury VDN appellation in the north of the Roussillon includes four neighbouring villages either side and south of Maury. Banyuls covers the demarcated coastal zone spanning from Collioure to the Spanish border via Banyuls-sur-mer in the region's southeastern corner. Rivesaltes takes in anywhere else where there are qualifying vineyards, so has little to do with the town apart from name. There's also Muscat de Rivesaltes VDN, a tasty example of which I've included in my previous report on Roussillon whites and rosés.
Vine varieties and winemaking techniques are basically the same across all three production zones, with some variations. The white grapes used are mainly Macabeu, Grenache blanc and Grenache gris; and for reds, Grenache noir and sometimes Carignan. Cask-aged 'white' VDNs from Rivesaltes are called Ambré reflecting the deeper golden yellow orange and/or brown colour (depending on age) resulting from this kind of oxidative maturation.
Cask-matured red VDNs from Rivesaltes are labelled Tuilé, also reminiscent of their fading colour over time, which are similar to red Tawny Ports. In Maury and Banyuls, you'll see other different terminology such as 'Réserve' with an indication of age or Grand Cru relating to particular types of cask-matured wines (see examples recommended below). And young fruity white VDNS are simply called e.g. Banyuls or Maury blanc. More details can be found in my book or on the official Roussillon Wine website.
Other key terms used for very different styles of red VDN are Grenat (in Rivesaltes and Maury) and Rimage (in Banyuls) applied to vintage- or late-bottled vintage-type wines like their Port counterparts, which are produced from Grenache noir muté sur grains, meaning fortified with the pulp and skins in the juice before pressing to maximise extraction. They are often NOT matured in barrels at all and bottled the following year or within a couple of years, thus vibrant fruity and chunky when young (many 'new-wave' styles are designed to be consumed like this) or left to age 'reductively' in bottle (the opposite of oxidative).
As a by-the-way, it would seem to make sense for more VDN producers to bottle more of these unique wines in smaller sizes (some already do) such as 50cl (becoming common), half or even quarter-bottles given the limited taste and market for them, which might encourage people to take the plunge and try the different VDN styles on other occasions, not just Christmas day or whatever.
Hence, they cost less too: in the UK and other countries, (high) duty or excise taxes are based on alcohol by volume level. Talking of alcohol content, with most of the wines here registering between 15.5% and 17.5% abv, rather than 20+ like most Port, perhaps Roussillon VDNs have a slight advantage in terms of taste (less boozy) as well as tax level per unit.

Ambré style VDNs

Dom Brial
Rivesaltes Grande Réserve 1969 (pic. above): Aged in large old casks for 40 years 'in a naturally oxidative environment' (hence that colour) then racked and bottled in January 2009. Why not start with something exceptional and rare ("If it's the 69 you were expecting me," to misappropriate a 007 line...), as the region's co-op wineries are the best place (they have the stock and resources) to find these genuine one-offs, outside of literally a handful of generations-old winegrowing families who still have a few precious old bottles stashed away.
Smells and tastes unbelievably 'young' still, immensely complex lingering aromas and flavours conjuring up tangy baked pecan nuts and those slightly 'gassy' oxidised notes I associate with old Madeira (you have to smell it), very long and elegant finish with so many sweet/sour flavours, the sugar (originally 100 grams per litre (gr/l) residual sugar (RS)) and alcohol (15.5% abv) have almost melted into the background.
The company suggests trying it with chocolate desserts or a selection of those bite-sized puds some restaurants offer; also good with strong-flavoured tangy cheeses like Roquefort or goat's cheese, and of course French people may be inclined to drink a glass with Foie Gras! France €90-€99 (75cl); €98.50 Wein Heuer Germany; €105-€115 Herman Wines, Wijnhuis Oktober, Netherlands & Belgium.
There's a note on Dom Brial's luscious Muscat de Rivesaltes VDN HERE (36 Roussillon whites and rosés).

Domaine Singla
Héritage du Temps Rivesaltes 5 Ans d'Age (16% abv, 100 gr/l RS): Macabeu with Grenache blanc; non-vintage blend with average age of about five years matured in casks. Toffee and roast nuts on the nose, lovely sweet vs tangy flavour profile with plenty of character; very nice, classic 'starter' ambré VDN: Singla has stocks of some really old vintages (and much more expensive of course) e.g. 1946! 50cl France €14; €26.95 Netherlands and Belgium.

Domaine Cazes
Rivesaltes Ambré 2013 (16% abv): 100% Grenache blanc; matured in big century-old tuns until bottling, losing 7% of its volume a year in evaporation. Delicious classic style showing sweetness vs tangy walnut flavours, intricate and multi-layered while powerful yet impeccably balanced. Cazes suggests pairing with Foie Gras mi-cuit (so French), pork in ginger or curried (sounds a good idea), herby cheeses, crème brûlée or nut tart (almond, walnut, hazelnut or why not pecan pie). France €21; UK £16.95-£18.95 half-bottle.

Arnaud de Villeneuve
Rivesaltes Ambré Tradition 5 Ans d'Age (16% abv, 103 RS): 50% Macabeu, 30% Grenache blanc, 20% Grenache gris; non-vintage blend of VDNs aged for 36 months in vats then 24-36 months in tuns. Appetizing well-blended ambré style, offering a nice mix of tangy aged fruit and sweet finish, concentrated too for the price. France €8.50-€10; CA$17.25.
Rivesaltes Ambré Prestige 2002 (16% abv, 115 RS): 60% Grenache blanc, 30% Macabeu, 10% Grenache gris; matured in a 'solera' system of different-sized casks, bottled in November 2021. Deeper-coloured richer and mellower wine, gorgeous ginger cake flavours, very intense and sweet finish. Twenty years young. €30

Other white VDNs

Domaine des Soulanes
Maury Blanc 2021 (16.5% abv, 86 gr/l RS): 80% Grenache blanc, 20% Grenache gris; bottled early. Fresh and aromatic with yeast-lees notes, intense and lively palate, not so sweet-tasting in the end; more refreshing, less-dessert-y style. France €15.50.

'Vintage-style' red VDNs

Domaine des Soulanes
Maury Grenat 2021 (16.5% abv, 92 gr/l RS): Grenache noir; vinified in stainless tanks and bottled after a few months. Super wild-fruity nose and flavours with underlying firm tannins, it's well made and nicely balanced; was a touch closed up when I tried it but will be good. UK £20-£22 (Cambridge Wine Merchants); France €15.50-€17.80; Switzerland CHF19.50-21.70.

Domaine Vial Magnères
Banyuls Rimage 2018 (16.5% abv, 99 gr/l RS): Grenache noir; aged in stainless tanks and bottled within a year. Enticing sweet fruit aromas and flavours, doesn't come across as that old despite its attractive savoury edges, still quite elegant and vibrant. France €18.50; Switzerland CHF19.90; Germany €21.50-€25.95; Netherlands €27-€31.; US $27; Denmark Kr200.

Domaine Pouderoux
Maury Bio 2019 (15.5% abv): 100% Grenache noir (selected 30 to 50 year-old vines, organic), long maceration, aged in airtight tanks and bottled the following spring. Complex meaty nose, fairly chunky and dense on the palate still, those firm yet integrated tannins making it taste less sweet in the end; beginning to drink now but best keep it for a few years. 50cl France €20; UK £17-£19 (importer: Thorman Hunt).

Domaine Cazes - Les Clos de Paulilles
Banyuls Rimage 2020 (16.5% abv): 100% Grenache noir, fermented in stainless steel tanks then mutage sur grain and five-week maceration with pumping over to maximise extraction of flavour, colour and tannins; bottled within 18 months. Lovely luscious fruity VDN, well made with lots of dark berry and cherry fruits, and light grip countering the sweetness. France €16 (50cl); UK £16-£22.

Aged red VDNs

Domaine Vial Magnères
Gaby Vial Banyuls 7 ans d'âge (16.5% abv, 80 RS): Mostly Grenache noir with Grenache gris (about 70 years old) matured oxidatively in old tuns; the blend contains wines with an average age of seven years. More obviously (deliberately) oxidised with savoury meaty aromas, less sweet on the palate with appealing balancing bite of tannin / alcohol; delicious lingering flavours. €19.50
Cuvée André Magnères Banyuls Grand Cru 2009 (17.5% abv, 98 RS): 100% Grenache noir, aged for 10 years in cask. Super intense VDN with brown-orange-red colour, actually quite firm still and tangy vs long sweet finish. Wow. €43

Chateau Nadal Hainaut
Rivesaltes Tuilé 2001 (16% abv, 113 RS): 100% Grenache noir muté sur grains and aged for 7 years in barrels outdoors. Gorgeous oxidised candied nose of raisins and roses, sweet dried damson fruit is offset by a lightly grainy texture; still has a bit of life in it yet. Cellar door €21 50cl.

By the way, also made by Domaine Vial Magnères in Banyuls-sur-mer are a couple of extraordinary Rancio Sec wines, one 'white' and one 'red'. Neither of them is fortified nor sweet - these wines are utterly dry in fact but don't fit in style-wise with the other dry Roussillon wines reviewed in my previous three articles. They have an elevated alcohol level in common with VDNs but naturally so, not fortified, of about 16% abv. They are categorised as IGP Côte Vermeille Rancio Sec and cost €19.50 per 50cl cellar door.
The white is called Ranfio Cino crafted from 70 year-old Grenache gris (80%) and Grenache blanc (20%), which is matured in cask for 6 to 10 years under a 'veil' of natural yeast growth, similar to certain sherries that it resembles in colour, smell and taste (very nutty, yeasty, tangy; perhaps something like an aged Fino in style). Food-wise, think squid, anchovies, cured ham, bisque...
The wacky red Ranfio Seco is based on Grenache noir (70%) and Grenache gris (30%) undergoing a 4-week maceration and oxidative ageing for more than 10 years. It's immensely intense, complex and tangy tasting like little else I've ever tried, it could keep forever; they suggest drinking it with lobster (I can see that). In addition, the winery holds small stocks of Banyuls Rancio called Al Tragou dating from the 1980s, which is a traditional long-aged Banyuls VDN not a rancio sec.

Other recent Roussillon posts:

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