Exploring Ancient Alchemy and Remote Terrain to Find France’s Best-Kept Wine Secret

Mary Winston Nicklin Exploring Ancient Alchemy and Remote Terrain to Find France’s Best-Kept Wine Secret

4 minute Read

Four hundred years before Portugal began producing Port, an alchemist in France discovered the method, known as mutage, of creating fortified wines. Yes, in 1284 A.D., a fellow who dabbled in magic in an effort to turn ordinary metals into gold changed the course of wine history.

This tinkerer was named Arnaldus de Villanova. An unrelenting overachiever, de Villanova was the personal doctor to no fewer than three popes and three kings, a theologian, and professor of medicine.

The King of Mallorca, who ruled over France’s Mediterranean coast at the time, immediately saw the merits of mutage and “trademarked” it in 1299. Thus, Banyuls wines were born.

Understanding Banyuls Wines

During the Banyuls vinification process, alcohol is added to the wine must to stop fermentation while sugar levels are still high. The higher alcohol content of the resulting wines helped preserve them on long sea voyages, making them even more appealing to medieval drinkers. (Poor Arnaldus de Villanova was not privy to the same fate; he perished in a shipwreck near Genoa in 1311.)

Made from at least 50 percent Grenache Noir, these vins doux naturels (VDN) are remarkably versatile.

“Banyuls can be poured as an aperitif,” Ann-Sofie Ey says. She runs Mon Club de Vin, a boutique in Banyuls-sur-Mer, with her husband, Jean-François. They work with 40 local producers and export select bottles to the United States through their company, Traditions & Innovations.

Ann-Sofie suggests pairing white Banyuls with smoked salmon or Serrano ham, or serving it “with foie gras, or with strong cheese or chocolate for dessert,” she says. “The older vintages, rich with complex flavors, can even be served as a digestif.”

So why don’t Banyuls wines have a bigger footprint now? Why aren’t today’s troubadours singing about them in the streets, at American wine bars, or on social media?

Some drinkers point to Port’s rise to prominence following years of war between France and Britain. When British imbibers could no longer get access to their favorite French wines, the enterprising Portuguese stepped into the vacuum, and low-tax Port flooded English ports. Banyuls was eclipsed by Port in the Anglo-Saxon world. Others suggest the culture of after-dinner drinks remains nascent in America. Either way, Banyuls remains one of France’s best-kept secrets.

Exploring Banyuls Wine Country

Banyuls wines hail from a drop-dead gorgeous slice of terra firma near France’s border with Spain. Steeped in Catalan history and culture, the Roussillon region is sandwiched between the Pyrénées mountains and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Terraced vineyards cling to the hillsides around the beachside village of Banyuls-sur-Mer — so steep that all the vineyard work is done by hand. The mythical Tramontane, a strong, dry wind, sweeps down the mountains from the north, helping the grapes ripen in the sun-baked schist soil.

In this corner of the country, development has been kept at bay. The exquisite scenery can be appreciated while lolling on the beach, sipping wines at tasting rooms, or hiking the trails that thread through the surrounding hills.

Take, for example, the Domaine Les Clos de Paulilles, the prestigious wine estate founded in 1800 and acquired by biodynamic Maison Cazes in 2012. It commands a piece of seafront real estate that’s almost impossibly beautiful. Its Banyuls wines are aged outside in glass vats, called bonbonnes de verre, soaking up the sunshine, battered by the wind, as they face the sea. The domaine’s first Banyuls Grand Cru was vinified in 2013.

“There’s a lot of sun and sugar in there,” Ann-Sofie says.

A few miles away away on the Vermillion Coast, the colorful Catalan town of Collioure lured artists like Henri Matisse and André Derain, inspiring an artistic movement known as Fauvism. (Their shocking use of color earned them the nickname of fauves, or wild beasts.) “No sky in all France is more blue than that of Collioure,” said Matisse. “I only have to close the shutters of my room and there, chez moi, are all the colors of the Mediterranean.”

It’s in Collioure’s picturesque alleyways where you’ll find Domaine Pietri-Geraud, a fifth-generation estate that’s been overseen by female winemakers for more than 35 years. Laetitia and her mother Maguy run the show. (You can’t miss it. The ochre-colored shop with a big green door is right across from the best pizza place in town, with lines snaking down Rue Pasteur.)

A sign outside poetically describes the traditional Banyuls winemaking process: “Our Banyuls is aged in bonbonnes de verre on the balcony during four years. Exposed to the elements, this aging method inherited from our ancestors’ savoir-faire gives the Banyuls its beautiful amber dress and aromas of torréfaction. And so is born Banyuls, ‘Cuvée du Soleil.’”

The Banyuls Blanc is their iconic wine, but also try the Cuvée Joseph-Geraud 2010, their Banyuls Traditionnel.

Back in Banyuls-sur-Mer, continue your wine adventures at a wine bar called Les 9 Caves. The cavernous space is stocked with wines from the region’s independent producers, and the open kitchen sends out tasty, vegetable-centric plates like chickpea cakes topped with roasted peppers, chard, and walnuts.

Banyuls may be one of the oldest appellations in France (created in 1936), but, of course, it’s not the only thing produced in the region. The same soil and the same grapes in the same geographic area — confined to the four communes of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Collioure, Port-Vendres and Cerbère — also create red, rosé, and white Collioure wines.

“You’ll love this,” says owner Jan Paul Delliaas, bringing out a bottle of Pedres Blanques 2017. He uncorks a spectacular natural wine made by Rié et Hirofumi Shoji, a Japanese couple who cultivate seven acres of Grenache Noir in the hills above Banyuls-sur-Mer.

The town made headlines earlier this year because this duo was threatened with expulsion from France for administrative reasons. The entire wine world had its back; a petition and media mobilization resulted in the prefecture back-peddling on its decision and granting an extended visa.

El Celler de Can Roca, the three Michelin-starred restaurant in Girona with Pedres Blanques on its wine list, joined the rest of the Banyuls-drinking world in breathing a sigh of relief.

Three Banyuls Wines To Try

Le Clois de Pauilles, Banyuls Traditionnel 2012

Made with 95 percent Grenache Noir and 5 percent Grenache Gris, a complex wine that’s perfect by the fire in the colder months. Average price: $16

Domaine Pietri-Geraud, Banyuls Blanc 2015

This elegant white Banyuls, made with 100 percent Grenache Blanc, is emblematic of the family-owned domaine run by female winemakers. Average price: $22

Gérard Bertrand, Banyuls Traditionnel Prestige 2013

The price is right for this rich red Banyuls. Aromatic with notes of ripe blackcurrant and blackberry, this wine pairs well with fruit desserts or chocolate. Average price: $18

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