Roussillon’s dry wines are go-tos, especially around the holidays. The quality-to-value ratio is superb. In fact, we have a really nice set of Roussillon wines available here -- but there’s a lot more to say about this unique region.

My first introduction to Roussillon was the Domaine Cazes Vin Doux Naturels Rivesaltes 1994. This happened long before I kept digital tasting notes (the only way to do it!) It was served as an aperitif, in port-style glasses, before heading out to dinner. It’s a ritual I’ve repeated many times since.

Vin Doux Naturels, or VDNs, underpin Roussillon’s history. The lightly fortified wines account for ninety percent of France’s Vin Doux Naturel production. The wines begin fermenting in the usual fashion -- but when we intervene, something spectacular happens.The intervention is called mutage. It was discovered in 1285 at the University of Montpellier – which happens to be located in the Roussillon area. Mutage goes a little something like this: Fermentation is arrested, on purpose, with a neutral-flavored, high-proof spirit. When it comes to VDN, the neutral spirit can be added at or near the beginning of fermentation. The leftover sugars increase sweetness and alcohol level. VDNs preserve the essence of grapes as they ripened on the vine – a “grapey” characteristic that can be hard to find in a dry wine. While some VDNs (like those made with Muscat) are intended for consumption in youth, others age for decades in wood or glass vessels.

There’s a growing movement toward rancio sec VDNs. This is an oxidative aging process (exposing the wine to light, air, etc.) that obliterates all notions of fruit in the final product. Instead the wine develops complex and unusual notes – think dark leathers and exotic spice. What fun!

‘Tis the season for celebratory dinners. There’s ample opportunity to include Roussillon VDN in your drink plan. Here are three key Roussillon sub-regions to consider. Each one is a master of VDN. Look for these names on the label or in your web search.

Banyuls
Banyuls produces highly respected VDN wines on steep terraces abutting Spain. While you can find Banyuls in a dry style, its Grenache-based dessert wines are of superior quality. They are often described as the quintessential chocolate pairing wine. The term Rimage (a Catalan word meaning “vintage”) is a high-quality indicator. Rimage wines are aged without oxygen contact for a minimum of twelve months, which helps preserve fresh fruit flavors. One of my favorite producers from this region is Domaine La Tour Vielle.

Maury
The Maury appellation is in in the hills of the Agly Valley at the foot of the Corbières mountains. It’s one of Roussillon’s hotter sub-regions, and so pique ripeness is within reach. It is largely composed of black schist soils which bring balance and freshness to the wines. Like Banyuls, Maury is a master of Grenache-based VDNs.  (Side note: You can look to Maury for some terrific red and white dry wines, too. They’ve become very popular in recent years.) One of my favorite producers from the region is Mas Amiel.

Rivesaltes
Rivesaltes is Roussillon’s largest and most popular VDN producing area. The word, Rivesaltes, means “high banks” in the Catalan language. I’m a big fan of Muscat de Rivesaltes -- a sub-sub region, if you will. It is designated for white VDN made from Muscat petits grains and Muscat of Alexandria. The former grape lends exotic fruit and citrus scents, while the latter affords full, ripe fruit aromas of fresh grape and rose. Gérard Bertrand does a great job with their Muscat de Rivesaltes.