Buff wines

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am

When it comes to grenache, nudity doesn't spring to mind. Yet, the grape makes one of the world's greatest au naturel wines, vin doux naturel or 'natural sweet wine'.

Generally grenache grapes are known for their role in southern Rhone blends, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and in Australia's McLaren Vale but, when planted close to the southernmost borders of France, on cliff-clinging vineyards by the warm Mediterranean seas, grenache goes au naturel.

To produce vin doux naturel (VDN), grape clusters are kept on the vine until quite ripe, along the lines of raisins.

The wine may be sweet but its claims to be natural are dubious: shortly after the grapes are harvested, they are doused liberally with distilled spirits resulting in a juicy, fortified wine.

Banyuls is the greatest source of grenache- based VDN. From these rocky, terraced vineyards in Roussillon, grenache hits its stride when a few middle-aged wrinkles begin to show. In its crinkly state, the grape is quite sweet and this is preserved by dousing the fruit with alcohol. This causes the fermentation yeast to pass out, leaving a sweet, fruity, heady red wine. This technique has been known to be effective in other situations.

Some 400 years before port was 'invented', Banyuls and nearby villages in Roussillon were the epicentre of VDN production, the technique having been developed at a local medical school. The fruity elixir was so distinctive that the region was granted a patent by the then-in-charge king of Majorca in 1299. This same technique is now used to produce port but more alcohol is added: port wines have alcohol levels ranging from 19 per cent to 21 per cent, versus Banyuls' 15 per cent to 18 per cent.

In port production the grapes are foot-stomped, mechanically crushed or spun in revolving tanks to maximise extraction of colour and flavour. In Banyuls, the process is less interventionist: after the alcohol is added, the wine is simply left with the skins to steep, for up to six weeks.

There are two levels of Banyuls quality, with standard AC Banyuls containing a minimum of 50 per cent grenache and AC Banyuls Grand Cru a minimum of 75 per cent. Banyuls grand cru is matured in wood casks for at least 30 months.

Banyuls appears in two styles, one featuring the wine's fresh-fruit character and the other deliberately oxidised a tawny-red colour through extended barrel maturation and sometimes left outdoors under the blistering southern sun. Many Banyuls grand cru wines are vintage-dated, though in a nod to its Catalan heritage, the word rimage is sometimes used instead of vintage.

In France, the wine is often enjoyed as an aperitif, though Banyuls is also drunk post-dinner as it is one of the few wines that can successfully be paired with chocolate.

VDN by Domaine et Terroirs du Sud can be sourced via Berry Brothers & Rudd (www.bbr.com.hk). Other producers to watch out for include Mas Amiel, Domaine de Mas Blanc, Domaine de La Tour Vieille, Domaine de la Rectoire, Vial Magneres, Pietri-Geraud and Chapoutier's Terra Vinya. There are too few of these gems on our tables - it's time to get naked.

Debra Meiburg is a master of wine