Vin Doux Naturels
There are a number of wines that fall under the VDN category. They are all fortified with a neutral grape spirit to give them higher levels of alcohol, at least 15%abv. The wines are very sweet but balanced with crisp acidity. They have an incredibly long history in the south of France starting in the 13th century.
How are they made?
The high sugar grapes are picked at harvest, the variety and amount of sugar is dependant on the individual appellation (see below). Muscat varieties and Grenache are the most used. The wine then starts its fermentation before it is halted with a neutral grape spirit to raise the wines alcohol content. Generally, the white wines are unaged and designed to be consumed fresh and fruity with a highly aromatic profile. Tuile styles are always aged and develop complex, rancio flavours like dried figs, raisins and chocolate
Where are they located?
There are a number of locations for the appellations. They are all located in the South of France where the warm, dry conditions allow the grapes to achieve the required level of ripeness. Roussillon is home to Banyuls, Maury, Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and Rateau are located in the Rhone Valley and Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is located in the Languedoc.
The VDN appellations:
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise
Located in the Rhone valley Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is a brilliant sweet wine produced from Muscat à Petits Grains. There are a number of forms of Muscat à Petits Grains but the golden skinned version is most common. Yields are highly restricted to concentrate the sugars and flavours in the grapes. Due to the number different coloured skins, Muscat à Petits Grains can have Muscat de Beaumes de Venise can range from pale lemon to amber, rosé or even dark red.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is sweet. The wine must have over 100g/l sugar with at least 15% alcohol. There are lovely flavours of rose, honey and ripe tropical fruits like mango and pineapple. The best wines have brilliant orange blossom aromas.
This vin doux naturel is also from the Rhone Valley but is produced from Grenache. A range of styles are available (Blanc, Ambré, Rosé, Grenat and Tuilé) and it is dependant on the form of Grenache used (Noir, Blanc or Gris). This is a small appellation with only 22ha and low yields meaning it is one of the rarer vins doux naturel wines available.
Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois
Located in the Languedoc sweet wines from this appellation are also produced from Muscat à Petits Grains. The name ‘Saint-Jean-de-Minervois’ comes from a small village located at the end of the Massif Central. The Massif Central is an important highland region that has numerous mountains and plateaus. It creates important features including slopes and rivers that are key to grape growing in the area.
The wines are full-bodied with rich pear, tropical and floral notes, like Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.
The wines range from rosé, amber, tawny, grenat and garnet. Rivesaltes is made from many mutations of Grenache; Noir, Grey and Blanc. This determines the final style of the wine. Muscat’s and other more unusual varieties including Tourbat are also permitted to be used. The Grenat wines are full-bodied with bold dark fruit flavours while the tuilé wines have more aged flavours like raisins and figs. Interestingly, there is another classification called Rivesaltes Hors d’Age where the minimum ageing time is five years. They are most commonly non-vintage.
Muscat de Rivesaltes
These must be produced from either Muscat à Petits Grains or Muscat of Alexandria. Muscat of Alexandria is similar to Muscat à Petits Grains but is generally considered to be a lesser variety. This is because of the much larger berries that have less concentration and finesse. The grapes are less floral and have more generic fruit flavours such as stone fruit and citrus. It is the most planted of all the Muscat’s.
Most producers blend the two varieties together to get the best balance. It is now a legal requirement to have at least 50% of Muscat à Petits Grains planted in the vineyard. This was introduced to improve the quality and reputation of the sweet wine. However, this does not mean that the wine blends are the same ratio as Muscat à Petits Grains produces much lower yields.
There are a large number of styles that can be made in this appellation; Grenat, Tuilé, White and Ambré are all popular styles. They are mostly made from Grenache and all skin colours can be used (Noir, Gris and Blanc). Muscats can also be used for the white and Ambre styles but these are far less common.
The taste and structure of the sweet wines are very dependent on the winemaking style used. Grenache Noir is the most commonly used grape variety. It is used to produced Maury Grenat. The grapes have a long maceration the resulting wine can be very tannic, full-bodied with a deep ruby colour. Unlike, many other VDN’s Maury Grenat wines age well and develop savoury, herbaceous flavours. Maury Tuilé also has great ageing potential as it must have at least 30 months (2.5 years) of maturation before they are released. The ageing is done in the presence of oxygen so the wines develop a tawny colour and flavours of dried fruit, chocolate and nuts.
Banyuls and Banyuls Grand Cru
These gorgeous vineyards are located just above the Spanish border on the Mediterranean Sea. Again, Grenache is the most important variety but Muscat can also be used. Grenache Noir must make up at least 50% of the blend for Banyuls and at least 75% for Banyuls Grand Cru. Like many of the VDN’s the wines greatly range in style. White, Ambré and Rosé styles are all permitted and range from fresh and fruity to dried and more complex.
Interestingly, the Banyuls Grand Cru can only be made in the Tuilé style. They have extended periods of ageing (for at least 30 months like Maury Tuilé). The wines have complex dried fruit, nut and chocolate flavours. Another unusual feature is that the Grand Cru wines can have a prefix of ‘dry’, ‘sec’ or ‘brut’ as long as they contain less than 54g/l of sugar. This is still sweet so don’t expect to be drinking a dry style of wine!