VinCe Magazine Autumn 2012
Anything but Rosé – Late Harvest, Cooked and Muscat Wines from Provence
New wine trends come from many sources – new varieties, foreign introductions and by reviving older, often forgotten traditions. Our memories are often short when it comes to wine. For the past fifty years rosé has been increasing in Provence, now representing a staggering 80-90% of wine production. Yet late-harvest, dried grapes and cooked wines are all part of a long tradition of sweet wine making in south eastern France. Cassis, known for its dry white wine, the perfect accompaniment to Mediterranean fish dishes, was well known for its sweet Muscats until its vineyards were wiped out by phylloxera in 1865. The market for sweet wines has sadly diminished, but using old techniques and traditional varieties has enabled producers to make new styles within the traditional parameters of Provencal wine.
Vendange tardive (late-harvest) wines, harvested late-October to mid-November, both sweet and dry, are growing in popularity. White styles include Viognier, Semillon, Rolle, Muscat and Grenache Blanc, while the red are largely made from Grenache.
In the far north west of the region in the northern Rhone, maybe stretching the definition of Provence a little, are the rarely seen late-harvest wines of Condrieu. Before the First World War, Condrieu’s Viognier wines were sweet, but by 1941 only 8ha of its vines remained and economic necessity meant that larger quantities of dry white wine were preferred. Instead of harvesting late, the sweet wines were made by arresting fermentation with the addition of alcohol. Today, with over 140ha planted in the best sites, with frequent good years, botrytis (due to proximity to the Rhone), and harvesting as late as 1st November, more producers are attempting to make the traditional vendange tardive (now 4% of production). The natural acidity of the Viognier grown in Condrieu helps these wines retain their freshness. 2010 was a good year: Domaine Gaillard’s ‘Fleurs d’Autumn (200g/l residual sugar) has pronounced botrytis character with rich marmalade fruit and soft creamy texture. Villard’s late harvest wine (135g/l) is full of intense dried apricot fruit. Faury’s ‘Brumaire’ (90g/l) is zesty with fresh apricots, ginger, lemon and cream, while Domaine du Chêne’s ‘Julien’ (75g/l) has the typical dried apricot fruit and the Viognier floral aromas. ‘Invitare’ from Chapoutier, (named after the Hungarian tanners based in nearby St Peray who were invited every year to help harvest the grapes) is dry with the aromatic honeyed richness of a later harvested wine.
Few Provençal wines have botrytis, as autumns are too dry, resulting in sweet but not luscious wines. One exception is the sweet wine of Les Fermes des Lices in St Tropez, whose Bordelais winemaker makes an excellent botrytised sweet wine.
Château Thuerry’s ‘Legende d’Automne’ was originally an oaky, sweet Semillon, but the 2011 had more Muscat and less oak and was more successful, with fresh grapey aromas, honey, apricot and ginger fruit and citrus acidity. Mr Rasse at Le Vignoble des Hautes Collines, in St Jeannet, near Nice, makes a ‘Vendange Tardive Rolle’ full of dried peaches, apricots and salty savoury notes, marmalade and dark chocolate; production is small with the equivalent of one glass per vine. Domaine Théri in the Luberon makes a sweet (60g/l sugar) ‘Vendange Blanc’ with Grenache Blanc and Rolle and an off-dry (30g/l) ‘Vendange Noire’ with Grenache, which is full of intense blackcurrant jam fruit and reminiscent of a vin de noix or port. Rasse makes a late-harvested ‘Rancio Grenache’ which is slightly madierised with stewed prune fruit and, in some vintages, a nutty character.
Dry late-harvest wines are particularly successful. Clos d’Alari, near Lorgues made their ‘Vendange Tardive’ in 2010 almost by accident. After a period of rain and hail, much of their crop was damaged. Noticing that some of their Rolle had survived but was still unripe, they chose to wait. The resulting off-dry wine (13g/l) has honeyed peach fruit and crisp green-apple freshness. The white wines of the coastal region around La Londe typically have a high salty mineral acidity which makes them ideal for late-harvest wines. Château Malherbe’s ‘Grand Blanc’ made from Rolle and Semillon, fermented dry and aged in demi-muit with battonage, has extra complexity and ripe nut and buttery fruit balancing the powerful mineral structure and long acidity.
Late harvest dry rosé wines are an interesting trend which a few are making. Château de Berne’s Rosé ‘Vendange d’Automne’ has good fresh acidity balancing the 60g/l residual sugar to give a rich off-dry finish. Just over the border into Italy, Ka Manciné’s late harvest Rossese rosé is darker than usual but again benefits from a fuller body and extra weight.
Rasse also makes an excellent dry rosé made using traditional methods. Aged in 50l glass jars called tuilé, out in the sun for six months, the wine develops a flor-like layer which protects the wine, finishing with three months in barrique. The resulting wine is slightly oxidised and madeirised with fresh ripe fruit and long acidity.
There are many varieties of Muscat with varying intensity of aroma. In Provence the most commonly used are the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (also called Muscat de Frontignan) in Clairette de Die and Beaumes de Venise, and Muscat of Alexandria used in passito, table wines and as table grapes. Martin Lister wrote in 1698 of the excellent Muscat wines of St Laurence – now St Laurent-du-Var next to Nice, – saying these were similar in style to the Roman wine called vinum passum from ‘half sun-dried grapes’ made by twisting the stems so that the bunches hung down and dried on the vine. In the hot Provençal autumn, grapes dry rapidly, producing rich wines. Rasse makes a sweet Muscat whose grapes are left on the vine to dry without twisting the stem, and harvested in October. The resulting wine has surprisingly fresh acidity with quince, marmalade, apricots, ginger and fig notes.
Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, the most famous sweet wine of Provence, comes from the Southern Rhone. Its early commercial success was due to the proximity of the medieval papal palace in Avignon and the demands of the papal court for rich, sweet, Muscats. Originally made with dried grapes, in 1943 Beaumes de Venise received its appellation status for a vin doux naturel (VDN) made by fermentation with alcohol creating a wine with 15% alcohol and a minimum sugar level of 110g/l. Its fresh fruity character is promoted as an iced aperitif in the summer served with local melon and figs. The wine is successful commercially. The largest producer is the local co-operative, while small estates, such as Domaine Durban, produce excellent wines. Neighbouring Rasteau VDN wines are made from Grenache. The red version is aged in wood to give a rancio (oxidised) character.
A few producers are experimenting with different levels of dryness. Domaine des Planes near Fréjus was one of the first; their Muscat is mildly grapey and soft with 9g/l sugar, and gentle apple acidity. Château Calisse in northern Côteaux Varois has taken advantage of the cooler climate, harvesting over a month later than coastal vineyards, to produce a fresh aromatic wine while Château de Berne’s Muscat is a light fresh style with hints of ginger and spice.
Sparkling Muscats from Clairette de Die, in the north of Provence have a long history back to early medieval times. Many of the vineyards are at 700m on chalky soil, giving these wines, made from Muscat (75% minimum) and Clairette (25% maximum), great aromatic freshness. A typical example has floral aromas of rose and honeysuckle with gently sweet peach and apricot fruit on the palate and alcohol around 7-9%. Considering so many southern sparkling wines lack essential acidity, there is much to recommend these sparkling floral wines.
Around Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, the traditional sweet wine is vin cuit (cooked wine). Made by gently boiling the must for two days, until reduced by a third, it is fermented in barrel, and aged for two to five years. This style has its roots in Roman wine making traditions. In 1817 Jullien wrote that “… the inspissated [thick, dried…wines] especially when of mature age, are deemed … superior to the sweet wines of Spain, Italy, and Greece, and are … considered as not inferior to Tokay.” Commercial production started in the 1820s and continued until 1960. In 1975, Jean Salen at Domaine les Bastides, north of Aix-en-Provence, revived the tradition using J-B Reboul’s recipe in ‘La Cuisine Provençale’ (1910). Made largely with Grenache Noir, they produce between 2-3000 bottles each year. Today, about 15 producers make the wine, scattered around Aix. Good examples should be fresh, with no burnt or caramelised character. When young, the wine has zesty grapefruit and orange fruit, developing marmalade and quince jam fruit with age. The wine is part of the traditional Provençal Christmas feast where it is served with a dessert made up of thirteen dishes.
Apart from the VDN wines of Beaumes de Venise and Rasteau and the sparkling wines of Clairette de Die, the late-harvest, vin cuit and Muscat wines are generally difficult to find. There are probably many more interesting wines yet to be discovered. Muscat is currently experiencing a global revival which may encourage more producers to make more wines with this variety. With no official appellation controlée status, these traditional wines are not promoted and are often regarded as a distraction away from the more commercial wine styles, but many show outstanding quality and character while remaining honest to their heritage, and hopefully will continue to thrive.