Banyuls fortified red wine is sometimes referred to as the French cousin of Port. The name Banyuls comes from the coastal town of ‘Banyuls Sur Mer’ in south of France, on the border with Spain. It is recorded the Knights Templar began cultivating grape vines in the region. Banyuls is a Grenache-based fortified wine that has been made since the 13th century. It was a physician, alchemist named Arnaud de Villeneuve (head of the University of Montpellier) who discovered in 1285 the method of ‘mutage’, when he figured out that the fermentation of wine could be halted by adding pure grape spirit, thereby leaving it naturally sweet - ‘the marriage between spirit and wine’. Banyuls wine is allowed to ferment until it has reached about 6% alcohol, then grape spirit is added, raising the alcohol level to about 15 - 16.5%.
The name Arnaud gave to the wines made this way was ‘Vins Doux Naturels’ VDN, or ‘naturally sweet wines’. Though the name is somewhat misleading, the process has been used for the making of other fortified wines such as Port and Madeira for a very long time. The method of making ‘vins doux naturels’ today is basically unaltered from when it was first invented.
Banyuls is only one of the fortified wines made in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which is home to some of the most ancient vineyards of the world. Evidence of Greek and Roman influence in winemaking can be seen today in the elaborate terracing criss-crossing the hills of the region. The wine growing area is located on the southern corner of France that joins Spain, and experiences intensely hot summers and the winters are influenced by the ‘tramontane’ winds that blow dry, cold, and often violently from the north.
The terroir, vineyard topography is made up of grey schist from the Cambrian period. The vines cling to steep slopes or on very narrow terraces supported by low walls. The wine growing region is a mix of terraces and slopes where it is necessary to harvest by hand and to sometimes use mule, horse or even cable-car to transport the harvest.
AOC Banyuls is one of the oldest in France - dating back to 1936, and the appellation consists of the 4 towns; Banyuls-Sur-Mer, Cerbère, Collioure and Port-Vendres. The planted wine area of Banyuls is approximately 617 hectares, with the area of Banyuls Grand Cru making up some 261 hectares. The grapes include: Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, (other red varietals include Carignan, Cinsault and Syrah), Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Macabeu, Tourbat or Malvoisie du Roussillon.
Banyuls is the only appellation of sweet wines in France entitled to use the designation of ‘Grand Cru’, under very strict conditions relating to the soil, the yields and exact conditions and controls of production. Its characteristics are a fortification of the wine, an obligatory proportion of 75% Grenache Noir and a minimum of 30 months aging in oak barrels.
The different wines now produced in the region:
◆ Banyuls Blanc: A bright yellow wine, with floral notes with citrus and white fruits. Traditionally, the best cuvées are matured, giving golden wines called Banyuls Ambrés. There is also a small production of Rosé Banyuls wines.
◆ Banyuls ‘Traditional’: The most common, and a symbol of the regions great tradition. They are rich-red, matured in an oxidative environment over several years.
◆ Banyuls ‘Rimage’: Crafted only in the best years: a wine with long maceration, with a rich complexity and an addition of alcohol. To preserve the fruit, its freshness and power, wines are bottled rapidly (6-12 months after the harvest) then aged. Residual sugar of 90 - 96g/L.
◆ Banyuls ‘Grand Cru’: Ageing for a minimum of 30 months in oak. Only the best vintages are classified, with a strong concentration. The oak ageing gives complexity and structure, developing a cooked fruit aroma with hints of spices, mocha, tobacco and roasted coffee.
◆ Banyuls ‘Rimage’ Mise Tardive: Crafted on the same principles as above, wines are matured from 1-3 years in ‘tuns’ or in full oak barrels with the aim of rounding out the tannins and enriching flavours.
Rich and full-bodied, it is less sweet and viscous than a typical dessert wine. A rich garnet colour and a good balanced acidity that makes it a more delicate wine than vintage port.
Made in the best vintages, the Banyuls ‘Grand Cru’ wines are aged in oak casks or barrels to refine their complexity and allow them to express subtle aromas of caramelised fruits, mocha, tobacco, vanilla, notes of toast and dried spices. The result is a sweet wine that is a classic companion to varied desserts. Banyuls wine can be enjoyed as an aperitif but it at its best and blends beautifully with foie gras, duck with cherries, rich, sweet cheese, rich desserts, dark chocolate and coffee. Traditionally served between 12-16°C, depending on its age, residual sugar levels and can be consumed after 3 years of maturation but can age up to 30 years.