Thursday, 1 April 2010

Languedoc Roussillon – Sweet Wines (Vins Doux Naturels)

The sweet wines of the Languedoc Roussillon have an ancient past. These are the oldest known fortified wines in the world. In 1285, Arnaud de Villeneuve, scholar of the University of Montpellier and physician at the Court of Kings of Majorca and France discovered mutage (the marriage of grape spirit with the grape must). The word mutage comes from the French môut, meaning must (must is the pressed pulp, skin and skin of the grape).

Through contacts with Arab alchemists, Villeneuve was aware of the alcohol obtained by distillation of wine and he discovered that by adding the spirit before or during fermentation the result was a stuck fermentation. Those grape sugars not converted to alcohol by the action of yeast provide sweetness, the added grape spirit compensates for the reduced conversion of the grape sugars to alcohol. Villeneuve won a patent from the King of Majorca, who then ruled Roussillon, to produce wines in the region using the mutage method and so Vins Doux Naturels were born.

Vins Doux Naturels can been oxidised where the wines are aged in oak barrels exposed to the sun to warm. They are aged from between 2 and 20 years. These wines change colour over time reds become mahogany and flavour notes deepen into candied plum and cassis and whites turn into amber golds with honeyed orange and apricot notes. Some wine makers expose the wines to sunlight in demi johns called bonbonnes.

In addition to the dark colour, the resulting wines often have a nutty, rancid taste called rancio. Rancio refers to the wines that have spent a significant time in old oak barrels. The character is best described as a blend of butterscotch and old wood aromas.

The Vins Doux Naturels of the region are Muscat de Mireval, Muscat de Lunel. Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Saint-Jean de Minervois, Muscat de Rivesaltes, Maury and Banyuls.


Susan said...

Once again, a wonderful history lesson that I enjoyed reading.

lostpastremembered said...

I was just having this conversation with someone... when were fortified wines first created.. now I know. Thanks for the information. I had thought drinking them in the middle ages was an anachronism... now I see it would not be. You remind me I really must try a banyuls again... it's been a long time.

Sue said...

Banyuls and Maury are the next wines I am going to have a look at after the Muscats!