22 January 2016

The wines that France forgot


‘I can do this,’ I said to myself as I looked through the rear view mirror of my hire car only to see a vertical drop of what looked like about a mile. Perched high on a very steep mountain road in deepest, southern France we were on the last leg of a journey to the Cathar citadel of Quéribus, a ruined castle which, from its position straddled atop a mountain overlooks the vast plains of Corbieres.

We’re in the Roussillon, without doubt one of Europe’s most spectacular wine growing regions. Fanning out from the southern port of Perpignan the Roussillon is wild, mountainous and impressive. The road to Quéribus seemed to go on forever, spiralling up higher and higher until we arrived at a small, flat ledge. Only this wasn’t it, around the corner was a further road: narrow, steep and with a perilous drop on the left hand side. Which is where we find ourselves now, having tentatively crawled half way up, we met another car coming down, they didn’t stop, so I’m left having to perform a hill start on what feels like a 45 degree angle, on the side of a very high mountain.

It’s not going well. My first two attempts have resulted in the clutch slipping and as the car judders back, I slam on the breaks and I notice my hands begin to tremble. I don’t like heights and at that moment I don’t want to be in the car. Hand break on, I get out and take a walk around – O.K. there is around 15 feet behind me before the drop, calm down, we can do this. Putting my foot hard down on the accelerator I slowly bring up the clutch, the engine is revving hard and I can smell burning, all I want to do is reach the biting point. Eventually, we begin our ascent, slowly, carefully making it to the top. Getting out to admire the view I notice I’m still shaking, it takes about an hour to calm down.

I was thinking of Quéribus and that fateful experience on the mountain side as I tasted through a range of wines from that part of the world in London recently. It felt as though that sort of intense experience was appropriate. It is, after all, a dramatic landscape which produces dramatic wines. The area is now known for its table wines, both red (rustic and spicy) and white (mellow and nutty) but for centuries it was was famous for its rich, sweet wines grown in the appellations of Banyuls, Maury, Rivesaltes and Muscat-de- Rivesaltes. Today Vins Doux Naturels (VDN) as they are known, are so hopelessly unfashionable that they offer arguably the best value aged wine in the world.

It was the Knights Templars, who not only established places like Quéribus, but also mastered the art of making sweet wine. Centuries before the British created port, in the similarly dramatic landscape of Portugal’s Douro valley, a 13th century scientist called Arnaud Villeneuve, working at Montpellier’s medical school, invented the process of adding spirit to fermenting wine thus halting the fermentation and leaving the residual sugar in the bottle. The result is a mahogany coloured wine that comes in at around 15% alcohol and with age can taste of spice and dried fruits such as raisins, cooked prune and fig. There is also a slight nutty character – think walnut skin. To taste they are rather like a tawny port only lighter as the base spirit is added a little later in the winemaking process. Like tawny port they are aged in vast barrels, but there the similarities end as they can also be aged in demijohns that are left outside, exposed to the baking hot sunlight.

Back in the 1950s the region was the backbone of France’s domestic, sweet wine market producing millions of bottles a year. Today they have all but disappeared as the world has lost its appetite for sweet wine and moved on.

But a few of them survive, thanks to Philippe Geyral, who has, over the last 20 years amassed quite a collection of very old examples. A former salesman for a consortium of French co-ops, Geyral spent a large part of his time in the cellars of Roussillon. Seeing the collapse of the market for VDN he began buying up old stock, which he now releases onto the market.

He says their popularity started during the First World War as the sugar in the wine acted as a natural preservative so it was one of the only wines that arrived at the front line in good condition. Their popularity peaked in the 1950s when around 60 million bottles of wine were sold a year, now, he estimates it is down to around 1 million bottles.

I recently tasted through 17 different vintages from a variety of producers, assembled by Geyral, that stretched back from 1985 to 1874. So yes, astonishingly old. But the wines need the bottle age, when they are young the sugar and alcohol tend to dominate but with time they develop into something a little more complex and nuanced. Despite the age of these wines and the fact that once opened you can keep them open for several days, what struck me was their terrific value. A case of 12 bottles of 1947 comes in at £540, the sort of price one could be paying for a single bottle of first rate Bordeaux these days, even more for Burgundy and certainly not one as old as 1947. Take the 40 year-old – 1976 –  £330 a case or £27.50 a bottle. If many of you have birthdays or anniversaries coming up I urge you to track down these wines, they make for a rather nice winter aperitif too.

Three to Buy

1946 Rivesaltes, Chateau Mossé

This sits in the glass with a slight mahogany hue, one could describe it as amber. There is a touch of wood on the nose and a fresh citrus character. Concentrated this reminded me of a very old tawny only lighter in style. Complex and nuanced it has enough to satisfy both the palate and the intellect. For it’s age it is astonishing.


1955 Rivesaltes, Marquis de Boaca

An absolute stand out in the tasting this is a rich, rounded stunning wine with intense concentration and an attractive, sensual caramel which dances across the tongue. Another sniff reveals some exotic spices and a little nutmeg. Ever changing in the glass, if one was inclined I could imagine sipping this with a cigar.


1976 Rivesaltes, Riveyrac

Anyone like me who was born in 1976 will struggle to find anything decent to drink from that year such was the dearth of good winemaking and vintages in 1976. This is the exception, bright mahogany it has an appealing freshness and tight raisin character. Very good.


Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015