Do you Vin Doux Naturel?

“I’m not bad-mouthing Napa or California. But [discovering the Roussillon terroir has] taken my respect for winemaking to a different level.” Davy Phinney, 'The American'

Just when you think there's nothing new to discover or learn about the world of wine, that's until you take a trip to the B-side, where all the undiscovered tracks and deep cuts are found. That was my experience in a nutshell after a week-long journey to uncover the joys of Grenache and Garnacha. This story landed me in the heart of Roussillon, the Maury sub-appellation to be precise. The Roussillon region doesn't roll off the tongue of average vino-sapiens the way others do and comes readily to mind when asked about other wine regions in the world, they may be familiar with, other than those of renown.

Though we were technically in France, the area of Roussillon (roo-see-yohn) has been a region that has switched hands many times over the centuries, between Spain and France. So although we crossed the border on a fast train from Madrid into France, it's architecture and more importantly its culture remained Catalonian. While the Roussillon is a small part of the better known Languedoc, and are often only held together with a hyphen, the inhabitants cling to their Catalonian past and traditions. But what they do have in common is wine and the signature grapes of the greater overall region. Those varietals if you will, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan leading the way with red grapes and the whites, made from Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu, Muscat and other lesser-known but emerging grapes.

The Roussillon once a region only renown for cooperative style bulk wines has experienced a renaissance of sorts. It's odd to say that though considering the fact the Roussillon has been one of three well-known hubs for vins deux naturels, what some would call the 'Roussillon' versions of Sherry and Port. Fast forward to the present; investors are pouring in, seeing the potential of the climate and the soils, believing dry (table) wines are the way forward, we tasted many of those efforts during our visit there, and I was pretty excited about what I found.

Can we take a tradition of sweet wines, vin doux naturel and go dry? This question was one Olivier Decelle, the owner of Mas Amiel had to have answered before deciding to go all-in and purchase (1999) the sizeable (226-hectare estate) Domaine Mas Amiel. He saw the great potential to do so much more than just sweet wine, the terroir cried out for it; besides who wants to be a one-trick pony? Further, he had to seek permission from the National Institute of origin and quality (INAO) if his desire to make dry wines would be allowed. There's a tradition and a plethora of years sweet winemaking baked into the culture here, but permission was granted, and the implementation of dry wines got started; both styles sit side by side in harmony, but vin doux naturel still rules the roost 60/40.

In the Maury region "vin doux naturel" is the signature style of winemaking, but what is it exactly? This style of wine is accomplished by adding a fortifying spirit, often a distilled liquor similar to brandy or one produced from grape skins. What this does, it stops the wine yeast activities from continuing, leaving the residual or "natural" sugars in the wine. This process is similar to the way port is made, but the divergent (unique to Maury) path happens when the wine is placed in large demijohn, bonbonnes or carboys aka glass containers, which you can see in the picture above.

A transformation takes place, while the is intentionally oxidized in the hot sunny weather, this region of France is one of the sunniest, averaging over 230 sunny, warm days a year. This process changes the color of the wine thus making it lighter, and it will eventually grow darker after it goes into large vats or foudres, depending on the preference of the winemaker, the stay in these vats can be brief, a few years or for the long haul, or like the '69 we tasted, a lifetime.

“The secret to a great natural sweet wine is that of finding a precise balance, between sweetness and freshness." ~ Marcel MA Cellar Master 

Fast forward a few years, and Mas Amiel has got all its oars rowing in the same direction, the dry wine program came to fruition in 2008, and they refined their sweet wine game as well. The prices points are reasonable and run the gamut from affordable to affluent. Some are occasion wines while others are 'everyday' drinkers. The sweet wines are great with blue cheese, everything from Roquefort to Stilton pair marvelously with these wine, are as an after-dinner digestive with dessert, the bonus these wines can remain open longer than the average port and maintain their freshness for years. On the dry-side, tasty wines emblematic of their terroir and easy to please the fussiest of wine enthusiasts with their affable style. It's a bit mind-blowing to know just how history you're tasting, knowing some of these wines are as old or older than the average wine enthusiasts.

You'll find Mas Amiel on the steps of the Pyrenees range in Maury, with roughly 420 acres under vine. The soil type is rocky, mostly schist (similar to the soils of other well-regarded regions), a majority of the vines are of a goblet orientation, there's little to no disease pressure, which means there's no need to spray. There's also an excellent near daily gusty breeze helping to prevent fungus, and a voluminous number of sunny days and cool crisp nights during the growing season, locking in flavor and acidity. The perfect growing conditions for making excellent tasting and balanced wines. There's also minimal issues with birds during harvest eating fruit, the most significant problems, rabbits in the spring and wild boars eating fruit before harvest. You'll find that the sweet wines are labeled Appellation Maury Controlee, and the dry whites and reds are either Côtes du Roussillon or IGP.

  “Making wine can be best described as attempting to write poetry in a language you don’t understand.” ~ Unknown

Now it's time to dive into the tasting notes, up first was a couple of white wines, one known as Vertigo a blend (Grenache Blanc, Maccabeu, Roussanne, Marsanne), and is said to be Biodynamically produced, which their winemaker Nicolas Raffy referred to as "no makeup." The second Altair a single varietal wine from a single vineyard block of gray grenache. I tasted were more than few reasonably priced wines weighing at an average of $25 a bottle. This factor, along with their wide range of different styles (including the oxidized) and flavors, was one of the most appealing aspects of the Roussillon wines I tasted that afternoon. This producer has much of its portfolio available in the U.S. market, should you seek them out. 

2017 MA Vertigo Dry White Blend: Grenache Blanc, Maccabeu, Roussanne, Marsanne rock the glass with pale color depth, an essence of yellow straw, on the clarity scale, clear. The aroma intensity is moderate, not jumping out of the glass, the aroma development is youthful. This wine offers a delightful bouquet of summer ripe pears, nectarines, peach, honey, and random floral notes. This wine is dry, the body is light, the acidity is fresh. The tannins are low, and the overall balance is good. The flavor intensity is moderate, citrus, lime, wet stone minerality, nectarine flesh, and honey. The finish is medium, and the overall quality is high. I scored this wine 87 points, it didn't wow me, but it's a solid wine for the money and would pair well with seafood. 

2015 Gray Grenache, Single Block, Côtes du Roussillon, Altair: In the glass, the color depth is pale, the color hue a medium yellow straw and the clarity clear. The aromas are moderate to aromatic, the development is youthful, but developing with some age. The perfume of petrol, broken black schist, lime zest, and nectarines. I found this wine to be bone-dry, the body is light, the acidity is tart, the tannins ranging low to medium and the overall balance is good. The flavor intensity, a moderate plus, sporting pear skins, lime zest, pine nuts, a briny quality, wet stone minerality, and lemon essence. I could see this wine pairing with oysters or sashimi, but on its own, it's too rough around the edges. My score for this wine is 86 points. I really wanted to like this wine more, but it's not a style with much approachability outta the gate. 

2015 Initial Mas Amiel, Maury Dry Red Blend: A blend of black Grenache, Carignan, and Syrah, with only 10% barrel-aged and the remainder in cement vats for 10 months. The color extraction was extraordinary, the color depth was deep but not opaque and, the color more ruby than deep red. The aroma intensity was incredibly aromatic, the development was still youthful. Cherry, white pepper, kicked over schist laden earth and crushed raspberry scent the air above the glass. On the palate, it's dry, quite dry, the body medium, the acidity is smooth as a baby's bum, the tannins are medium to round and well-integrated with great overall balance. The flavors are moderate, garrigue, red licorice, summer-fresh raspberry, earthy, a tangy tartness. This wine has terrific fruit to acid ratios, a food pairing champ, and a long, eloquent finish. I scored this wine 90 points.

2015 Legende Mas Amiel, Maury, Old Vine, Dry Red Blend: A blend of 80% Grenache Noir and 20% Carignan, vines planted in 1914 and is aged in 100% cement vats, expressing only the terroir-driven characteristics. The color depth is medium to deep, the color hue is ruby to red and a slight haze. The aroma intensity is aromatic, showing some age development; red vine licorice, raspberry, white pepper, cherry vanilla, drying tobacco leaves and spice. The wine comes off as dry, the body is medium, the acidity is tart, the overall flavor intensity is moderate. Dark cherry, briny wet stone, white pepper, garrigue, mint, thyme, sage, licorice and plum skins. The finish is medium to long, the style is modern and flashy. A bit of oak aging in neutral barrels would have rounded out some of this wines rougher edges. My score 89 points. Food pairing possibilities, cheese, charcuterie, fatty cuts of meat. 

Mas Amiel, Trente Ans d'Age 30 years: This wine is aged for one year in glass demijohns outdoors, just in front and off to the side of the well-appointed and modern tasting room. Then it is aged for 30 years in 350 hectolitres oak casks. The blend is 90% Grenache Noir, 5% Maccabeu, and 5% Carignan. As you can see the color in the glass is intense, these wines are fortified and oxidized, which means once it's opened you have a much longer window of drinking enjoyment, than you'd have from the average bottle of port. 

The aroma development is naturally aged, well developed and powerfully intense; aromas of dried orange peel zest, dates, caramel, vanilla, candied fruit, and dried figs. On the palate, it's very sweet, but not cloying, the burn of moderately intense brandy coats the mouth. This is a full-bodied wine, the acid is smooth, carrying the tremendous weight of the fruit very nicely. The tannins are fully integrated, flavors of chocolate, ginger, orange zest, toffee, and candied nuts linger on and on, with a lusty finish. I scored this wine 90 points, it's an excellent dessert wine. 

The MAS AMIEL '69 En Foudres, Maury AOC: This bad boy, was put into the bottle in 2007, it was aged outdoors in demijohns for a year and then spent the next 38 years in large 35hectolitresre Foudres. If you've seen the pictures, you get a sense of the scale of this 200-year-old barrels. Their signature blend is 90% Grenache Noir, 5% Maccabeu, and 5% Carignan.  The color in the glass is an intense amber color, dark but not opaque. The aromas are intense, and flow easily from the glass, like a fresh bouquet. The development is aged, aromas of sweet leather, orange rinds, drying tobacco leaves, toffee, and candied walnuts.

The flavor intensity matches the nose, it's sweet but not cloying, the body is heavy but overbearing. The acid to fruit ratio is spot on, doing some heavy lifting with a lifetime of oxidation weighing on it. The tannins are round and well-integrated, the flavor intensity is powerful. On the palate, candied nuts, cinnamon, vanilla, toffee, orange marmalade, chocolate, brandy. The finish is long and sumptuous. This is an excellent dessert wine and most likely a special occasion bottle, especially if you know someone with a birthday in '69. I scored this wine 94 points, it's not as expensive as some of the banyuls I encountered later on the trip.

Full Disclosure: Reviewed wines are from medias sample provided (not for sale) for the review process. Also please note, the wines experienced and reviewed here were presented during a press trip sponsored in part by the European Union and the Wines of Garnacha.

All original content: Including text and photographs remain the copyright © of the author, (W.R. Eyer, Fotogui Photography Inc.) except where otherwise noted.

Until next time folks remember life is short, compromise is for relationships, not wine, sip long and prosper cheers!


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