Sunday, May 2, 2010

In the Glass: A Banyuls - a Deliciously Sweet and Fortified Red Wine from Languedoc-Roussillon

Picture: Juan Gris - Banyuls 2

Banyuls is a deliciously sweet and fortified red wine from Languedoc-Roussillon region.


The Languedoc-Roussillon wine region covers the rugged Mediterranean coastline in France between Spain and the Rhone river, where the summers are intensely hot and the winters are dominated by dry, cold, and often violently winds from the north. Grenache is the main grape variety, struggling with the dry poor soil. On the other side of the Rhone river is the Cotes du Provence region, between the Rhone river and Italy. Roussillion is the area around Perpignon at the Spanish border, including Banyuls. Languedoc is the area around Montpellier, Nimes and Sete between Roussillon and the Rhone river.

Picture: Map of Languedoc-Roussillon

The Languedoc-Roussillon is a large producer, three times the combined area of the vineyards in Bordeaux. About one out of 10 bottles of wine produced in the world come from this region. They are now eying the Chinese market.

Noilly Prat and Picpul de Pinet from Languedoc-Roussillon

Noilly Prat, the essential ingredient of the traditional Martini that is so much loved by Americans is produced there. The company Noilly Prat was created in the 1800s by a Frenchman and an Englishman, Mr. Louis Noilly (French) and Mr. Claudius Prat (British), who also had family ties, in Marseillan, where the business has remained to this very day, although the company was sold to an international vermouth producer some years ago.

What is still the same is that the main grape for making the Noilly Prat is the Picpoul de Pinet. This is a high yield grape that produces refreshing summer wines. Picpoul de Pinet is grown near the sea, just inland from the Bassin de Thau, south of Sete. The Picpoul is high in acidity, translating into freshness in the wine, which, when balanced by fruit flavours of lemon, apple or pear, provides a perfect partner to seafood, in particular the oysters farmed in the Bassin de Thau.

Banyuls is a Fortified Wine

Mother Nature, under normal circumstances, produces dry wines in the vineyard. All the sugar in the grapes at harvest disappears during fermentation and no sweetness remains in the wine. There are, however, plenty of sweet wines made around the world. There are different techniques to make a wine sweet. One of them is to let the noble rot suck the water out of the grape, so that the degree of sugar in the grapes is extra-ordinary high.

Another technique is used in Portugal to make Port wine. Port wine is made sweet by adding alcohol to the fermenting must so the fermentation stops and the sugar of the grapes remains in the wine. What you get is a wine with lots of alcohol and remaining sweetness in the wine. That is exactly the same techniques used for the production of Banyuls. Thus, Port wine and Banyuls are always sweet.

Sherry, on the other hand is made by letting the fermention go its full way so that a dry wine emerges. Then, alcohol is added to boost the alcohol level. If the winemaker stops there, you get a dry Sherry. If he also adds sterilized juice, you get a sweet Sherry. Thus, Sherry can be sweet or dry.

Finally, the Mosel Kabinett, Spaetlese and Auslese wines are made sweet by stopping the fermentation without adding alcohol. One way is to cool down the fermenting must. What you get is a sweet and light wine.


Banyuls gets its name from the coastal town of Banyuls Sur Mer, once a sleepy fishing town that attracted artists like Matisse, Juan Gris and Picasso because it was a cheap place to live.

It has been made since the 13th century. It was then that a physician and alchemist named Arnaud de Villeneuve figured out that the fermentation of wine could be halted by adding spirit to it, thereby leaving it sweet.

What I tasted

NV Banyuls, Cooperative “Les Vignerons”

Banyuls is allowed to ferment until it has about six percent alcohol; then spirit is added, raising the alcohol level to about fifteen percent. Many light Mosel Auslese or Spaetlese wines are allowed to ferment to 7 to 8 percent. Banyuls is made from the Grenache grape and typically spends around 8 years aging in oak for aging. Banyuls is only one of several fortified wines made in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

Picture: NV Banyuls, Cooperative “Les Vignerons”

Tasting notes: milky brown in the glass with thick legs, has clearly aged, black plums, sweet tobacco, roasted hazelnuts and raspberries on the nose, very rich and full-bodied, good, balanced acidity, coupled with vanilla and cinnamon on the palate, long and smooth finish.

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