Ep 365: Vins Doux Naturels — the Underrated, Elegant Wines of Southern France

Vins doux naturels (VDNs), translated to ‘naturally sweet wines’, are some of the most historic yet underestimated wines in France. These wines are made using the process of mutage – adding neutral grape spirit/alcohol – to fermenting wine in order to halt fermentation and leave sugar in the wine (they aren’t REALLY naturally sweet wine, although producers will say you are preserving the natural sweetness of the wine so that’s the counterpoint).

Image of Rivesaltes: WinesoftheRoussillon.com

The technique of mutage was created in Roussillon in 1285 by Arnaud de Villeneuve, physician of the Royal House of Barcelona from 1281 to 1310 and a professor of the University of Montpellier. It is the same process used to make Port. Here the wine must be around 6% alcohol by volume when grape spirit is added to kill the yeast and bring the alcohol in the wine to 15-18% ABV. Wines retain sugar and this base wine can go many different directions depending on what the producer wants to present in the bottle.

Although these wines can be made with more than 20 different grape varieties, two take primacy: Muscat blanc à petit grains for the white and Grenache noir for the red.

Grenache is great as a young wine but can also be good if aged for years in old oak barrels, sometimes large glass jars (called bonbonnes or demi-johns) developing complexity and tertiary aromas (tobacco, saddle, mocha) Muscat has fresh, grapey aromas, and naturally high acidity so the resulting sweet wines are very balanced. These grapes get more flavor and color if the producer wants to put the juice in contact with the skins and, like the reds, they can also be aged oxidatively

Vins Doux Naturels of the Languedoc

We begin the show in the Languedoc, which only produces white vins doux naturels (VDNs) of the Muscat grape. Each of these wines is made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and made in a non oxidative style to show the ripe fruit flavors, honeyed notes and richness contrasting with the acidity of the grape. Here are the four VDN appellations of the Languedoc, all of which are fortified with neutral grape spirit to 15% – 18% alcohol and a minimum of 11% residual sugar (Saint Jean de Minervois has a minimum of 12.5% RS). These wines are all golden in color and made of white grapes:

Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois: Vineyards are at elevation so the wines have a better balance of acidity, more elegance, and are more complex Muscat de Frontignan: the biggest area for VdN in the Languedoc, these wines range in quality but Frontignan has great historic importance as it probably contains France’s earliest vineyard sites and was certainly the country’s first VdN appellation Muscat de Lunel is small and the local co-op makes many of the wines. The best have floral honeyed notes Muscat de Mireval is right next to the coast, immediately northeast of Frontignan and the wines, dominated by co-op production are rarely seen outside of France

Vins Doux Naturels of Roussillon

Roussillon was incorporated into France in 1659, but before that was part of Spain, which it borders. There is a very set Catalan influence in this area, which is a hybrid of Spanish and French culture in many ways. Roussillon is shaped like an amphitheater and borders the Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees & the Corbières Mountains. This sunniest region of France has rivers which shape the landscape and the terroir.

Roussillon is the epicenter of vins doux naturels, making 80% of all VDN. It makes white, and more interestingly, reds whose flavors you will not find anywhere else. After mutage, the VdNs are made reductively (like regular wine where you try to avoid contact with oxygen to maintain fresh flavors) or oxidatively, with exposure to air for varying lengths of time. On the wines of the Roussillon you will see the following labels:

Wines that are aged without oxygen (topped off barrels/reductive) and are fruity and strong: Blanc Rosé Rimage (used for Banyuls) Grenat (used for Maury, Rivesaltes) If they have a bit of age but are still reductive you will may see recolté or vendange on the bottle Wines that are aged oxidatively in barrels that are not topped off, thus concentrating flavors and giving the wines more character (similar to tawny Port, rosé is never aged this way, BTW) Ambré: Whites that are oxidatively aged Tuilé: Reds that are oxidatively aged Rancio: VERY rare category of wine. Either whites or reds aged for so long that they taste almost like Madeira. They are aged in glass bonbonnes/demi-Johns that are kept outside or in attics to gain exposure to the temperature extremes to intensify flavor Hors d’Age: Anything aged more than 5 years before release, normally oxidatively aged Vins Doux Naturel aging in bonbonnes Image Source: Vig’nette

Roussillon Wines/Areas

Muscat de Rivesaltes can be made two Muscat varieties blended in…