Banyuls, a French wine region to visit

Have you ever been to France? If not, Bristol Bar & Grille Master Sommelier Scott Harper shares why you should visit the beautiful French wine region of Banyuls.
Very close to the Spanish border, located in the southern area of Languedoc Roussillon, France, is Banyuls; as a matter of fact, it is the southern-most appellation in continental France. While you may have never heard of this incredible wine region, grapes have been growing there for thousands of years. Moreover, it was one of the first regions to be delimited by French wine law in 1936, the same time as Champagne.

The Region

Banyuls is a ruggedly beautiful region located on the Mediterranean, and as a result of this location, it averages 325 days of sunshine a year. Tis warm consistent climate has no problem ripening lush rich grapes. The vineyards are striking with some terraced vineyards graded at a steep 40 percent. Tis sheer aspect does not allow for mechanical harvesting; hence all harvesting is done by hand, and it is done by passing through the vineyards multiple times to be sure to pick only perfectly ripe grapes.


The Wine

If you make dry white, rose or red wines in the region, it is labeled Collioure. White Banyuls may be made and is quite rare, but red Banyuls is what the region’s reputation is built on. Red Banyuls is made predominantly from the Grenache grape, and if you make it from a minimum of 75 percent Grenache and age the wine 30 months in wood, it earns the Grand Cru Banyuls appellation.

Banyuls is a Vin Doux Natural (VDN), which is a dessert wine created by mutage, also known as fortification. Fermenting grape juice is muted or fortified with pure grape brandy. This mutage or fortifcation halts the fermentation process, leaving the wine naturally sweet with its own grape sugar, nonetheless boosting the alcohol to 15 to 20 percent alcohol.

A Banyuls may be vintage dated, and if so, it is likely to show its close approximation to Spain by having the Catalan term rimage on the label, meaning vintage. These Banyuls are typically bottled a year after harvest and are considered non-oxidative. Non-vintage Banyuls wines are aged for several years through oxidative maturation (exposed to air) in glass jugs or oak barrels and sometimes even outside. Tis oxidative process adds a unique character that tastes of dried fruits and nuts. Banyuls is usually bottled in a smaller 16.9 ounce bottle (half a liter), as opposed to the typical 25.4 ounce bottle (750 ml), which makes a perfect size for two to four people to enjoy.

Probably the best attribute of Banyuls is its ability to go with chocolate. The natural sweetness, full-body and chocolate favors go quite well with chocolate desserts or chocolate pieces and nuts. But remember that Banyuls needs to be at least as sweet as the dessert; otherwise the dessert will overwhelm the wine. Bittersweet chocolate pieces or dessert with a high percentage of cocoa as opposed to a high percentage of sugar works best. Also, slightly salty blue veined cheese pairs well with Banyuls. The salty and sweet seem to come together and create a synergistic effect of caramel. Banyuls is best served just below room temperature at around 65° F. Some even like it as an aperitif, but I think it is best placed at the end of a meal with dessert or even as a dessert all by itself.

Here are three very good producers of Banyuls:

  1. M. Chapoutier 2007

Made from 90% Grenache grapes this wine has the favors of rich black fruits, raspberries, stewed fruits, anise and cocoa. Its fortification is noticed but adds warmth and balance to the wines seductively rich, sweet and delicious full-body. Tis is from the excellent Rhone Valley producer M. Chapoutier who labels all of his wines with Braille labels as a hommage to Maurice De La Sizeranne an important nineteenth century figure in the blind community.

2. Les Clos de Paulilles

3. La Tour Vieille