The low down on Vin Doux Naturels
Wednesday 28 October
Vin Doux Naturels aren’t the easiest wines to sell. Sweet, high in alcohol and sometimes oxidised, they don’t exactly fit the modern wine drinker. As a wine journalist, there aren’t that many opportunities to taste them either and it’s a bit of a gaping hole in my wine knowledge. So, I invited myself along to a back vintage tasting of vin doux naturels from Roussillon.
There was a big on-trade presence at the tasting with sommeliers from St John’s, Hakkasan and Benares - and that really is the market they have to be aiming at. Getting the top sommeliers to make unusual pairings must be their goal because you won’t get people to select VDNs without someone putting it in front of them.
However, I needed to reacquaint myself with VDNs before I went and so I thought I’d bring you up to speed in my blog today.
80% of all VDN production comes from the sunny and dry Catalan region of Roussillon with names like Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes all famed for producing these wines.
The wines are generally made from Grenache (red), Muscat Blanc a Petit Grain or Muscat of Alexandria (white), with other minor varieties playing a small part.
In the same way as Port is fortified, the fermentation of Vin Doux Naturels is arrested by adding a neutral grape spirit at a whopping 96% alcohol to kill the yeasts (it’s only 77% in Port). The spirit makes up around 5-10% of the finished wine, which attains a final alcohol level of 15-18.9%. Still with me?
For red wines, the winemaker has to decide whether to add the spirit while the wine is on its skins. If he makes the red wine using traditional maceration then presses the wine off the skins before adding the spirit, the wine’s colour will be lighter than if he adds the spirit while the skins and wine are still macerating. Alcohol is a solvent and at 96% it extracts a lot more colour and tannins. The longer they leave the skins in contact with the alcohol, the more colour and concentrated it becomes.
Some mature the wine in a non-oxidative environment such as a full stainless steel vat, for example those making a Muscat de Rivesaltes for early release. It will have delicate, grapey and floral aromas and a mid lemon colour. Others leave their wines in a glass ‘bonbonne’ or a container outside allowing the wine to age oxidatively, particularly with the reds. It is claimed that one year ageing outside in the Roussillon heat is equivalent to 10 years’ ageing in temperature controlled cellars. These wines get a garnet rim pretty quickly. You’ll get sweet dried fruit, plums, some nutty and oxidised character and, volatile acid on the nose (think nail polish remover),
These wines are unique. But they aren’t exactly quaffers. There is a lot of potential for them as food wines, particularly the older wines – we went back to a 1910 Rivesaltes, which was still incredibly fresh and compared to a Pedro Ximenez without the sweetness.
Food matching ideas
Muscat de Rivesaltes with tapas, sweet and sour, Thai cuisine
Maury or Banyuls with duck, hard goat’s cheese, chocolate or blue cheese.