La Dolce Vita…Parisian Style

French sweet wines for the holidays

Taverne Henri IV © WA Dudley

Mystified by the sweet wines of the cellar?  A stranger to the liquoureux section?  French holiday meals provide the fare with which to pair sweet wines. Some sweet wines are sweet because their juices became sweet on the vine. These are called vins doux naturels(VDN), with examples like Sauternes, Vouvray Moelleux, and Coteaux du Layon.  Others are sweet because alcohol was added to the wine after the winemaking; these are vins fortifiés.  Examples of the fortified kind are Maury, Banyuls, and Rivesaltes.  Fortified wines generally have an alcohol content higher than wine but less spirits.

This season, sample a few vins doux from around the country. Whatever your indulgence, there is a sweet wine to go with it.

With foie gras
If you‚re a fan of foie gras, Sauternes, and Coteaux du Layon are there to enhance your experience. When you drink Sauternes, you are savouring a white wine from the Graves part of the Bordeaux region, made sweeter due to noble rot on the vine concentrating the juice.  Sauternes has the reputation of being very expensive because certain Chateaus such as the flagship Chateau Yquem are exorbitantly priced.  However, a young Sauternes can be bought for around 20 euros a bottle.
From the Anjou region of the Loire Valley, Coteaux du Layon is a less expensive sweet wine, available for under 10 euros a bottle.  This one is made from the chenin grape, grown on primarily schistous soils and aided by the Layon river which shelters the vineyards and which promotes the development of Noble Rot, produces lusciously and complexly aromatic sweet wines from over-ripened grapes that display a captivating array of aromas both in youth and when cellared.  Serve at 8 degrees celcius.

The chocolate challenge
Chocolate and the holidays go together like cafés and Paris.  What could be more fun than deciding what your favorite sweet wine is to pair with dark chocolate, chocolate cake, chocolate truffles?  There is much research to be done on this matter ˆ its time to get to work!  Try a competition between neighbouring wine regions of the Eastern Pyrenees: Maury, Banyuls, and Rivesaltes.

First a little about each of the contenders: The grapes in Rivesaltes wine are Grenache, Carignan, Macabeau and Muscat. Rivesaltes has an interesting history; it the birthplace of the vin doux naturel, a creation of Arnaud de Villeneuve, the eminent 13th Century physician, who discovered the process of halting the alcoholic fermentation by the addition of spirit to the must, thus giving rise to a new breed of wine.

The original reason for fortification was to preserve wines, as the higher alcohol level and additional sweetness help to preserve the wine (when supplemental alcohol is added before fermentation finishes, it kills the yeast and leaves residual sugar). Even though other preservation methods exist, the fortification process survives, as consumers have developed tastes for wines preserved this way.
Maury red wine is made from at least 50% Grenache Noir grapes. Other permitted grapes are Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, and (rarely used) Macabeu, Malvoisie and Muscat. This inland vineyard is the source of a wine that is often compared to port.  It is much less potent than port, which is usually closer to 20 per cent alcohol, and being based on Grenache rather than Portuguese grapes, is lighter in colour and gentler.

Maury is one of the communes for Côtes du Roussillon, but is distinguished from much of Roussillon by the presence of schist in its soils. Banyuls also comes from red Grenache grapes and is compared to Port.  This fortified wine derived from gorgeous old seaside vines with views onto the mediterannean.
The terraced vineyards surrounding the sunny yet sleepy port of Banyuls are on the slopes of the Pyrenees in the Roussillon wine region of Southern France, which borders Catalunya in Spain.  The production process, known in France as mutage, is similar to that used to make Port. Alcohol is added to the must to halt fermentation while sugar levels are still high, preserving the natural sugar of the grape.

The wines are then matured in oak barrels, or outside in glass bottles exposed to the sun, allowing the wine to maderise. The maturation period is a minimum of ten months for Banyuls AOC, and thirty months for Banyuls Grand Cru AOC. The resulting wine bears a similarity to port but tends to be lower in alcohol (~16% vs. ~20%).
Sweet wines take the cakes

Orange cake The tropical fruit flavours deriving from the Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes in a Sauternes, especially of citrus make Sauternes a great accompaniment for an orange tart or cake, that is less sweet than the (very sweet) wine.

Apple cake The Loire Valley‚s Vouvray Moelleux and Coteaux du Layon with the pear and apple aromas from the late harvested chenin are wonderful with apple cake. Vouvray wines are made through the vinification of the Chenin Blanc grape. offering botrytized sweet wines.  The annual harvest is one of the latest in France, usually occurring in November.  Look for the label Moelleux ˆ meaning “marrow” or mellow.  A long, mellow growing season makes for pleasantly plump grapes that is sweet, but not syrupy, with enough life-giving acidity to age many years.  Well-aged wines of this style can grow complex and compelling.

Bûche de Noël
Maury pairs with the flavor of the creamy filling of the yule log cake be it praliné, chocolate, pecan, or hazelnut.

Sippin‚ solo
For a heavenly yet simple way to savour a holiday meal, choose an Yquem and drink it by itself!