« Back to Articles

Au Naturel

By Debra Meiburg MW

When it comes to grenache, nudity doesn’t normally spring to mind. Yet, Grenache makes one of the world’s greatest au naturel wines, Vin Doux Naturel. Generally grenache is known for its role in Southern Rhône blends, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or as a vibrant, buxom raspberry lady from McLaren Vale, but when planted close to the southern-most borders of France, on cliff-clinging vineyards in sight of the warm Mediterranean seas, grenache, like many European sunbathers, goes au naturel.

Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) is French for natural sweet wine. To produce a VDN, grape clusters are allowed to sun-bathe on their vines until quite ripe, somewhat along the lines of raisins. The wine may be sweet, but it is anything but natural because shortly after these intensely sweet grapes are harvested, they are doused liberally with distilled spirits resulting in a juicy, fortified wine, France’s answer to Port.

Banyuls is the greatest source of grenache-based Vin Doux Naturel. From these rocky, terraced vineyards in Rousillon, grenache hits its stride when a few middle-aged wrinkles begin to show, unlike some of the bathers on nearby beaches. In their crinkly state, the grapes are quite sweet and it is this engaging sweetness that winemakers preserve by dousing the juice with alcohol. The alcohol immediately causes the fermentation yeasts to pass out, leaving a sweet, fruity, heady red wine. This same technique – dousing wrinkly middle-agers with alcohol to preserve their sweetness – has been known to be equally effective in many other situations.

Some 400 years before Port was “invented,” Banyuls and other nearby villages in Rousillon were the epicentre of VDN production, the delicious technique having been developed at a nearby medical school. The fruity elixir was so distinctive that the region was granted a patent by then-in-charge King of Mallorca in 1299. This same fortification technique is now also used to produce Port, but a larger portion of alcohol is added and the finished Port wines range from 19-21% alcohol levels versus Banyuls 15-18%. In Port production the grapes are vigorously foot-stomped, mechanically crushed or spun in revolving tanks to maximize extraction of colour and flavour. In Banyuls, the process is less interventionist: after the alcohol addition, the wine is simply left with the skins to steep, sometimes as long as six weeks.

There are two levels of Banyuls quality, with standard AC Banyuls being comprised of minimum 50% grenache and AC Banyuls Grand Cru of minimum 75%. Banyuls Grand Cru is matured in wood casks at least 30 months. Depending on producer preferences, Banyuls appear in two styles, one made to feature the wine’s fresh fruit character with the other deliberately oxidized a tawny-red colour through extended barrel maturation, sometimes left outdoors under the blistering southern sun. Many Banyuls Grand Cru wine are vintage-dated, though in a nod to Banyuls’ Catalan heritage, the word rimage is sometimes used instead of vintage. In France, the wine is often sipped as an apéritif, though elsewhere Banyuls is more commonly consumed post-dinner as it is one of the world’s few wines that can successfully pair with chocolate. Other producers to watch include Mas Amiel, Domaine de Mas Blanc, Domaine de La Tour Vieille, Domaine de la Rectoire, Vial Magnères, Pietri-Geraud and Chapoutier’s Terra Vinya. There are too few of these gems on our tables – it’s time to get naked.

* Wine in China Conference 2014 * November 5 * Hong Kong * Get Your Tickets Here *

Comments One Comment for “Au Naturel”
  1. greg on 11.06.14 at 01:05

    Thanks for bringing light to a varietal that can be so much to so many. The higher elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada and its steep granitic soils are producing world class Grenache.

Leave a Comment
Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Your Comment