Banyuls makes some of the best of the Languedoc-Roussillon's vin doux naturels. Vin doux naturels are a type of fortified wine made in southern France that is fermented with a small amount of a spirit in order to push up sugar and alcohol levels. The wines have an unusual raisiny taste, medium sweetness, and full-bodied power.
Located in Roussillon exclusively, the Banyuls communes are among the most southerly in France, bordering on Spain's Catalonia region. These communes are Banyuls-sur-Mer (16.35 square miles), Cerbère (3.16 square miles), Port-Vendres (5.7 square miles), and Collioure (5.03 square miles). This is a total of 30.24 square miles; they produce millions of bottles of wine each year. The exact same geographical limitations exist for Collioure AOC, which is for unfortified wines.
Considered áperitifs in most of France, the wines can also be drunk after dinner as dessert wines. The production process involves generally old-vine grapes which are not harvested late. Instead, they are fortified with a small amount of alcohol to stop the fermentation and preserve the residual sugar. The wines are then left to sit in the sun in glass bottles, or matured in regular oak barrels. The result is a strange and intriguing complex of flavors.
The process of making Banyuls wines and similar styles, known as mutage, has been in existence for years, but the Banyuls AOC was only created in 1972. Only recently has it become such a popular form of fortified wine, since it is considered a good alternative to Port in the realm of sweet red wine.
Climate and Viticulture
The Banyuls region, like most of the Roussillon, is extremely dry, and the weather is almost as warm as in the Roussillon's balmy southern neighbor, the vacation paradise of Catalonia, Spain. Hills and valleys are common, with the soils populated by Rhône-like clay and rocks. This is the warmest area in which French wine is produced, so it isn't surprising that these fortified styles are almost exclusive to the Roussillon.
Grenache, or Grenache Noir as it is called locally, is the main grape of Banyuls fortified wines. This is unsurprising, since it is one of the most commonly used grapes in fortified wines from Australia and the United States. At least half of the final blend must be made up of Grenache for a wine to qualify as Banyuls. It is Grenache that gives the wines their distinctly warm, raisiny taste, and their exotically strange smell. Zesty red grape Carignan is most common in Spain and Italy but is a member of the supporting cast in the Roussillon as well. When blended with the Grenache, which it usually is, it adds power to the final mixture.
Even rarer are the five white grapes that are allowed. Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir's white mutation, has gained popularity lately; Grenache Gris is less common but still exists here in small quantities. Grapy Muscat, ever-versatile Pinot Gris, and originally Riojan grape Viura are among the legal white grapes.
Most producers will deliver the magic of Banyuls, and for under $20. But keep in mind that many of the bottles sold are in traditional shapes and only contain 500mL as opposed to the usual 750mL.
Three producers especially can be counted on in this region.
- Clos de Paulilles: These wines are always strong but mildly sweet examples of Banyuls, with a nose of spicy herbs and dark, raisiny fruit flavors. The wines tend to come in 500mL bottles and go for around $20.
- Domaine du Mas Blanc: These impressive cuvées are released around 20 years after vintage. The Cuvée St-Martin is especially good, displaying amazing vibrant cooked flavors of fruit and earthy, coffeelike smells. The amazing complexity of these wines, derived from their old-vine origins, warrants more aging. The "Rimage" is more generous, with ripe, liqueur-like dark fruit and slightly exotic smoke aromas, but less intensity and more smoothness. These wines' main advantage is their combination of power with a smooth texture.
- Maison Chapoutier: Maison Chapoutier's basic Banyuls shows the négociant's mastery of the region. Spicy herbs and slightly cooked fruit garnish the sweet, raisiny character of this wine, which is inexpensive and offers a great intro to the region.
The same exact geographical distinction as Banyuls is used for Collioure AOC, which makes unfortified wines from similar grapes.
Banyuls has one subregion.
- Banyuls Grand Cru AOC: This appellation, created in 1972, isn't anything like Burgundy's Grands Crus, but simply designates additional regulations that should make the wines of generally higher quality. The Banyuls Grand Cru wines must be matured for 2.5 years in either the oak barrels or the glass bottles left outside. Grenache must make up 75% of the blend, rather than just 50%. Although many wines follow these rules for good measure, only a few wines wear the Grand Cru term on their labels.