For generations, Roussillon winemakers have relied on Vins Doux Naturels as their bread and butter. These “naturally sweet wines” are made by fortifying wine with near pure alcohol to arrest fermentation, resulting in a sweet wine with higher alcohol. But as consumers increasingly opt for dry wines, choosing to leave the dessert wines on the shelves, Roussillon is losing some of its sweetness.
Olivier Pithon produces stunning dry whites and reds from old vines once used for VDNs. He makes a compelling case for his vision of the region’s future.
Perhaps this is an inevitable swing of the pendulum after decades — even centuries — of many Roussillon winemakers producing a glut of sugary-sweet wines for an eager market. Perhaps, as several Roussillon winemakers told me, a younger generation is choosing instead to sip cocktails. In the face of these changing conditions, growers and winemakers are doing what they always do: adjusting. And based on my experience during a recent trip to the region, they’re doing a damn good job.
The Roussillon, which borders Spain and straddles the Mediterranean coast, produces more than 80% of France’s VDNs, according to the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR), a trade group. VDNs are made in a variety of styles, according to the rules of the various appellations, and range from the apricot jam-driven Muscat de Rivesaltes, to the richly sweet reds of Maury and Banyuls. Of the Roussillon VDNs, Muscat de Rivesaltes makes up some 65%. From 1996 to 2012, the average annual yield for Muscat de Rivesaltes was 127,389 hectoliters. But in 2012, according to CIVR data, Roussillon winemakers only produced 108,834 hectoliters.
During a January trip to the Roussillon, I tasted a lot of sweet wines and spoke with several winemakers about the future of the region’s VDNs. Their responses were strikingly similar: the future looks bleak.
In Montpellier, I dined with Jean-Francois Deu, winemaker and proprietor of Domaine du Traginer. Deu grows Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre in Collioure, a seaside slice of France that abuts Spanish Catalunya. This is traditional Banyuls territory, a centuries-old dessert wine made from fortified Grenache. They’re rich wines with sweet plum, earth and caramel themes. There’s a lot to like about Traginer’s 2011 Banyuls — it’s velvety and sweet, full of structure, complexity and aging potential. Deu still sells some Banyuls, just not as much as his family used to.
When I asked Deu about the future of Roussillon’s VDNs, he laughed. “Sweet wine?” He ran his hand across his throat. “It’s finished.” Deu said importers are afraid to buy VDNs because they don’t think they can sell them. “When I pour this [Banyuls] for people, they like it a lot,” Deu said. “But they don’t buy it.” Whereas with dry wines, he said, people buy them, drink them and come back to buy more.”
Luckily for Domaine de Traginer and other Banyuls producers, they can use the same grapes to make dry red wine under the Collioure appellation. (Banyuls is basically fortified Collioure, as the two appellations share geographical boundaries.) Jean-Francois said his dry reds are selling just fine, and it helps that the Collioure appellation has a good (and I’d say well-deserved) reputation in France and abroad. “If I can sell Banyuls, I will,” Deu said. “If I can’t, I will sell Collioure.”
So, are lovers of Southern French sweetness in trouble? Well, no, not really. There’s still plenty of the sweet stuff to go around.
Some simple, uninspiring Rivesaltes wines may fall out of fashion, and they won’t be missed. But those who take it seriously, like stalwart producer Domaine Cazes, are still going strong, and making a case that this sweet and richly historic wine has a future. Cazes has been making sweet Rivesaltes since the late 1800s. In addition to a slew of dry whites, roses and reds, Cazes bottles several sweet wines with various Rivesaltes appellations. During a visit to the estate, I tasted a bunch of Rivesaltes with winemaker Emmanuel Cazes. His 2010 Muscat de Rivesaltes is a simple lychee-driven wine with honey undertones. The Rivesaltes Ambré is made from Grenache Gris grapes that are oxidized as they age for seven years in open wood casks. The 2000 vintage is a nutty wine with balanced sweetness and lots of toasted almond and dried apricot elements. Rivesaltes Grenat is another appellation-specific wine made from fortified Grenache Noir — and Cazes’ is quite tasty.
Domaine Cazes: Carrying the VDN torch for 100+ years.
On a tour of the Domaine Cazes cellars, I wandered into a cold, damp room filled with old foudres. The room smelled of wet rocks, dried fruit and brandy. Emmanuel bottles and releases some of this wine periodically, reds, whites, ambrés, all at various stages of a long evolution. Emmanuel poured me some of the Cazes 1978 Rivesaltes, which was a simply beautiful wine, full of life and complex dried fruit, dried flowers and honeycomb notes. The domaine sells about a dozen other vintages of this wine, dating all the way back to 1931. These aged Rivesaltes appear aimed for a niche market of collectors and sugar-toothed enthusiasts, but Cazes’ commitment to traditional sweet wine is clear. They’ll sell VDNs as long as they can.
As I was riding around the areas near Rivesaltes with some representatives from SudVinBio, an association of organic Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers, I saw many vineyards that appeared abandoned. Grasses, wildflowers and windswept bushes had overtaken the old vines and were stealing all the sun. Rusted car parts and construction waste littered many vineyards. I asked our guide about these dystopian vineyard wastelands, and she said that many of them had once been home to Grenache Gris and Muscat grapes, used to make VDNs. Instead of ripping up the vines, apparently some growers just moved on and let nature figure it out.
But as producers of sweet wine bail, a group of enthusiastic young winemakers is stepping in. They’re buying up some of these old vineyards and making compelling dry wines.
One example is Domaine Les Conques vigneron Francois Douville. New to the Roussillon region, Douville bought a few plots of gnarled Granche Gris and Macabeo vines which had been used to make sweet Rivesaltes for decades. The grape varieties were all mixed together when they were planted, and Douville co-ferments them all into a dry white blend he calls Boheme. It’s a clean, zesty white with white peach and seashell flavors. The wine is so fresh, vibrant and food-friendly, it’s no wonder Douville chose this route instead of making a VDN.
Olivier Pithon is another Roussillon winemaker who snagged up some vineyards that had long been used to make sweet wine. His LA D18 was one of the most thrilling and surprising wines of my trip. It’s made from old vine Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeo, which used to be blended into VDN. I tasted the 2007 and the 2011 vintages of the LA D18, and both were impressive — crisp, clean, citrus-driven wines tinged with mineral and oceanic flavors. Pithon, who is originally from the Loire Valley, chose the Roussillon because of the abundance of old vines (80 to 100+ years old) and the diversity of terroirs. He’s trying to prove that dry Roussillon whites, like the Loire whites he knows so well, can improve in the cellar. He’s making some solid arguments. Looking for a comparison to Pithon’s 2007, the best I could come up with was a high-end Muscadet with several years on it, although the LA D18 is certainly unique. And considering that the sea is only a few kilometers away from Pithon’s cellars, this dry white makes complete sense to me. It’s made for the table, and it provides a more honest explanation of terroir when compared to the sweet wines I tasted.
Severine Bourrier, winemaker-proprietor of Chateau de l’Ou, is also convinced Roussillon’s future rests on dry wines. We shared dinner in Perpignan, and she told me all about her Syrah and Chardonnay vines south of the city. Here, she said, appellation rules forbid winemakers from making more Muscat than they did the previous year. So, the production of sweet Muscat has only one way to go — down. For Bourrier, this isn’t a bad thing. She wants to represent the Roussillon with wines like her 100% Syrah and 100% Chardonnay, which are bottled under the proprietary name Infiniment and carry a Cotes Catalan appellation. They’re modern wines, made with ripe fruit and new oak, but they’re delicious and I think they could hold up well in blind tastings of similar wines from the New World.
Time will tell whether the market for sweet Roussillon wines will continue to dry up. But, in the meantime, consumers looking for dry, food-friendly, terroir-driven wines have more options than ever. And that’s awesome.