Unfinished stories: Vins Doux Naturels

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There aren’t many people who can call themselves a wine archivist but Philippe Gayral is one. And, fortunately for those of us who appreciate delicious and underpriced wines with a story, we can buy from his archives. A 1947 for just £420 a dozen bottles, for instance.

The other way in which he describes himself and his wife, Sandrine, who designs the labels for his Muse Vintage Wines collection, is as “saviours of a dying wine style”. The strong, sweet Vins Doux Naturels of Roussillon in the sunny hinterland of Perpignan were once hugely popular, especially within France. The wines proved particularly useful for the French army since, with their high sugar and alcohol, they were so much more stable than table wines. Vins Doux Naturels are made by adding alcohol to part-made wine to stop the fermentation – but at a rather later stage than for port. A good 70 million bottles of these wines from the Rivesaltes appellation were sold annually in the mid-20th century. Today, fewer than three million bottles of Rivesaltes are filled and sold each year.

Grapey, easy Muscat de Rivesaltes is an easier sell (people like pouring it over melon for a start) and annual sales are still about 25 million bottles, but Gayral is sniffy about the Muscat grape: “Muscat wasn’t in Roussillon historically. The terroir is much better for Grenache (Noir, Blanc and Gris), and maybe Syrah and Carignan. But in Rivesaltes the big wineries panicked when sales started to fall and planted white grapes.” Grenache of all three colours with a little bit of local Tourbat and Maccabeu were the classic varieties for wines such as Banyuls, Maury and Rivesaltes that constitute Gayral’s archives.

In the late 1990s he was a salesman for a group of southern French co-ops and his rounds included tours of many of Roussillon’s cellars. He could see that stocks of their once-popular Vins Doux Naturels were starting to build up. Rivesaltes in particular had been marketed almost exclusively to older people, and prices were in freefall, as was its image. The co-ops frantically switched to making table wines and Roussillon was suddenly awash with bland versions of recently planted Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Muscat vinified as a dry wine. But Gayral says, “I have a passion for history, and for these wines [the Vins Doux Naturels], so I decided to save them.”

Fortunately for him, the unsold, unloved wines were not restricted to the big co-ops. Rivesaltes may have been dominated by big companies, but the Vins Doux Naturels of Banyuls and Maury were more typically made by individuals, often professional people with a weekend interest in wine, who could afford to invest in quality – and presumably hope to sit out the sluggishness of the market.

According to Gayral, once these strong, sweet essences are in a barrel or bottle – and many of them are aged in vast glass demijohns, sometimes in the brilliant sunshine – they change remarkably little. He recalls tasting wines at Mas Amiel, perhaps the best-known individual producer of Maury: “I’ve tasted wine from the same barrel over perhaps 18 years and it doesn’t really change. There’s not that much difference between a 1961 and a 1936!”

Domaine Sainte Barbe, whose 1961 (£380 a dozen in bond from Farr Vintners) appealed to me particularly for its flavours of dried citrus peel and the sweetness of raisins as well as its freshness and dry finish, is on the outskirts of Perpignan, and Gayral is gloomy about its prospects for resisting the encroachment of the suburbs

But I can tell you on the basis of a tasting of 17 of his wines, going back from a 2009 Maury to an 1874 Rivesaltes, that they do need a certain amount of age before they become interesting. The 2009 was a callow, unformed thing bursting with potential but no fun to drink now. It was made by Gayral and Mas Amiel’s former winemaker Stéphane Gallet from some of Maury’s best grapes and terroirs simply to demonstrate Maury at its best. According to him, most wine producers in the Agly valley (where Maury is one of the main villages) devote their finest grapes to table wines nowadays which he, of course, thinks is a shame.

The next youngest wine he showed was a 1973 which had still not been bottled, but my favourites were from the 1960s, 1950s and 1930s – they all had such interesting histories. Most of these special wines had been kept in reserve by various winemaking families who, discouraged by the lack of demand, then decided to quit the wine business. This was true of all the wines he showed from Domaine Sainte Lucie, Château Prieuré du Monastir del Camp, Domaine de Lacresse and Château Sisqueille in Rivesaltes.

One family domaine still in business whose wines Gayral sells is Domaine Piétri-Géraud. Their Banyuls stocks sit in a cool, white cellar, under much warmer eaves and on sunlit balconies. In the backstreets, theirs is the last working cellar in the seaside town of Collioure. I visited it with Gayral. “Collioure used to smell of Banyuls and anchovies,” sniffed the owner Laetitia Piétri-Géraud wistfully, “but now it just smells of chips and burgers.” It was extraordinary to come across a vast 600l cask of 1950 Banyuls, perhaps the most respected of the VDNs, which Gayral had managed to acquire.

As with any appellation wine, you can add up to 15 per cent of another wine to a Vin Doux Naturel, apparently, but only once. Very occasionally Gayral comes across an old wine that could do with perking up and adds a younger vintage of the same wine, if it exists. The wines range from about 16 per cent to 17.5 per cent alcohol so are notably lighter than port and some sherries, but – not surprisingly in view of their great age – the best are much more complex than the average southern French Muscat from, say, Beaumes de Venise. Most of these wines are based on Grenache Noir and taste reminiscent of an old tawny or Colheita port, but there are also paler wines based on long-aged white wines. The colours can vary from pale rose red through orange to dark treacle brown depending on how much wood and sunlight they have been exposed to. They may not have quite the majesty of one of the very, very finest ports or Sauternes, but they are brilliant bargains for marking anniversaries.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

Stockists from winesearcher.com

Jancis’s picks

● Dom Piétri-Géraud 1950 Banyuls

● Dom Prieuré du Monastir del Camp 1966 Rivesaltes

● Dom Ste-Barbe 1961 Rivesaltes

● Dom de Lacresse 1957 Rivesaltes

● Dom Prieuré du Monastir del Camp 1968 Rivesaltes

● Pla del Fount 1939 Maury

● Ch Sisqueille 1936 Rivesaltes

Stone Vine & Sun and Farr Vintners are particularly useful stockists of this style of wine in the UK.

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