Vins doux naturels – sweet wines in all shapes and sizes

There are lots of sensations in the world of wine – the sight of loving tended vineyards, the sound of wine being racked from one container to another, the taste obviously enough and the sensation of alcohol affecting the body. But one of the strongest is the smell of caramel, wood and a rich spiciness that you encounter when you enter the ageing cellar at Maison Cazes. Here you fill find century old foudres, large barrels, being used to age and slowly oxidise Vins Doux Naturels over a decade or two.  

Vin Doux NaturelsVDN, as this style of wine is inevitably known, is a special class of sweet wine.  Unlike wines made from botrytis-affected grapes, late harvested grapes or semi-dried grapes, VDN are made by the addition of alcohol which stops the alcoholic fermentation by killing the yeasts. This has two effects. Obviously it increases the alcoholic level, typically to between 15 and 17 degrees. Secondly, the wine remains sweet as the sugar level is retained and not fermented out.  The best known example is Port which is famous enough in its own right and not French and so doesn’t use the name VDN.  (There is another difference in that with Port you add a larger amount of a rather weaker spirit and fortify to 19-20%, while with the French VDN you add 10% of 95 degree spirit.)  As has often pointed out, this means that vins doux naturels are anything but naturel


As noted the basic technique, known as mutage, is to add grape spirit to the still sweet must. The process goes back at least to Arnaud de Villeneuve who obtained a patent for it in 1299 from the king of Majorca who ruled Roussillon in that period.  de Villeneuve is honoured today with his name having been adopted by one of the large cooperatives in Rivesaltes.  (ForIMG_8681 UK readers, you can buy its 1985 Rivesaltes from Waitrose at a very reasonable £12.50 for a wine that well into its third decade.) No doubt the great advantage of the discovery was that wine fortified in this way becomes virtually indestructible.  It can be kept or transported in adverse conditions and arrive still drinkable.  We take this for granted now but it will have been a huge advance back in the middle ages. 

All VDN share this basic technique  but there is then a distinction to be made between those wines which are aged with some oxygen present and those that seek to retain the fresh fruit flavours of young wines.  White wine made from Muscat is commonly found in an oxidised style and it is possible to find examples which have spent many years in large wood barrels. Some are also aged outside in large glass containers (known in French as bonbons) and subjected to the contrast of heat and cool. By contrast some are stored more conventionally like table wine to maintain fresh fruit flavours.

Rivesaltes is the large AC on mixed soils including limestone, with the AC extending over around 90 villages in Roussillon and a further nine in adjacent Languedoc. If Rivesaltes covers 4,400 hectares, its famous enclave on the distinctive, black, schist soil, AC Maury, has just 350. Further south, AC Banyuls (600 hectares) is to be found by the sea , famous for its red VDN.

IMG_8683Maison Cazes have an excellent range of VDN, fully utilising the range of grape varieties available. Muscat de Rivesaltes 2007 is perhaps the simplest, made from a blend of two varieties (Blanc à Petit Grains and  Alexandria) with the classic grapey nose and palate, sweet and rounded.  Rivesaltes Ambré 1998, 16% alcohol, is also made from these two Muscats. The spirit is added when the must reaches 7-8% of alcohol and the wine is aged is huge wood barrels, foudres, for seven years, losing 7% of volume per year.  It is then bottled and sold.  The finished, aged product has superb marmalade notes, burnt orange and honey, is only moderately sweet on the palate and lingering.  It is balanced enough to drink on its own as an aperitif as the French do.  By contrast, Grenat 2008, 15.5%, is made from Grenache Noir and is not subject to oxidisation at all. It has beautiful fruit and excellent complexity for a young wine.  Tuilé 1995 is the same grape variety but has been in the foudres for 12 years and smells like plums preserved in alcohol. There is still plenty of fruit left in the wine but it is now accompanied by enticing chocolate and coffee notes.  The final treat is Rivesaltes Cuvée Aimé Cazes 1978, which is 80% Grenache Blanc and 20% Grenache Noir made as a white wine.  The big difference here, apart from selecting the best fruit, is that it has spent no less than 22 years in the large oak barrels. The nose is relatively modest if with the the toffee and chocolate notes, but the palate is quite a revelation – still showing lively fruit of concentrated apricots and marmalade after all these years. Very impressive. 

IMG_8911Many wineries in Roussillon make VDN which in 2009 made up 30% of total wine production.  For example the Préceptoire de Centenach makes a white and a red Maury. The Maury Blanc 2008, which is very unusual, is made with exactly the same grape varieties as the winery’s white table wine: Macabeu, Grenache Gris, Carignan Blanc (the last being an almost extinct variety).  The wine is herbal and honeyed with a beautiful if modest sweetness.  Maury Aurelie 2008 is made from mainly Grenache Noir and some Carignan and has a rich palate of prunes, sweet chocolate notes and much more.  Le vin doux reveur, is a Maury Hors d’Age, ie the wines must be at least five years old. In fact this is a blend of 2001 and 2003, so that is more like a decade old.  It starts with inviting sweet fruit, but opens out to an oxidative and chocolate middle palate and finishes sweet. A beautiful and exciting wine.  

At the Lesquerde co-operative they have a full range including an experimental Rosé VDN.  They tried the Rosé 2010 on us first which I think was wise – it may look nice and it is certainly sweet, in fact very sweet, but doesn’t have a lot of character.  The Muscat de Rivesaltes, Tuilé and Grenat are very much true to type and excellent value, perhaps the best being the Tuilé with it lively red fruit, shot with cocoa, tobacco and orange flavours, moderately sweet with a tannic finish.  Sadly the Ambré 1998 was exhausted with the next vintage being available in the autumn.  

Rather like Tuscan Vin Santo, Vin Doux Naturel is a wonderful throwback to artisanal wine making and traditional styles.   You can make it on an industrial scale or in just one barrel or a few glass demi-john. It is a wine style with great variety within it: the levels of sweetness can vary, it can be fresh and fruity or aged and oxidised. Unusually, if like Port, the red varieties can be sweet and tannic. It is enormously versatile at the table – as aperitif, with soups, the red Grenache based wines go well with the richness of the local duck … or, famously, with chocolate, or, as the English might drink it, as a digestif.     There is so much sheer enjoyment here. 

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