The Legendary Fortified Wines of Banyuls
- By Jacky Blisson MW
- 08 Dec 2020
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
The sun-drenched vineyards of Banyuls are situated between the rocky Mediterranean coast and the foothills of the eastern Pyrénées, in France’s Roussillon wine region. The appellation is famous for its heady fortified wines that come in all shades from white, through amber, to red.
A Fascinating History
Throughout the first millennium, the sweet wines of the Roussillon were made using a variety of methods including late harvesting, grape drying, and sweetening finished wines with honey. The technique of fortification (the addition of a neutral grape spirit to kill off yeast and halt fermentation, leaving a sweet, high alcohol wine) was only discovered in 1285.
The discovery of mutage, as this process has come to be known, is credited to Arnau de Vilanova, doctor at the Palace of the Kings of Majorca in Perpignan. The vin doux naturel (naturally sweet wines) of the Roussillon were the first to undergo this transformation, some 400 years before famous fortified wines like Port.
The vineyards of Banyuls span the communes of Collioure, Port-Vendres, Banyuls-sur-Mer, and Cerbère, a stone’s throw north of the Spanish border. Some 1,000 hectares of vines are planted here, on steep, terraced slopes of grey schist. These soils retain heat well, and are also said to preserve acid levels in grapes, leading to ripe, powerful wines ably balanced by vibrant freshness.
The vineyards benefit from a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and frequent episodes of drought. Cool evening breezes from the Pyrénées help to temper the climate, providing temperature fluctuations that are also crucial for acid retention.
Major Grape Varieties
Grenache Noir is the major grape in the rosé and red fortified wines of Banyuls, accounting for at least 50% of Traditionnel wines and 75% of Banyuls Grand Cru bottlings. Secondary red blending grapes include Carignan Noir, Cinsault, and Syrah.
The white and ambré, categories of Banyuls are made with Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Macabeu, and Tourbat (which also goes by the name, Malvoisie du Roussillon). Secondary blending grapes like Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, and Carignan Blanc are also permitted in small percentages, depending on the wine style.
Banyuls Winemaking & Wine Styles
Banyuls is often considered to be the richest, most full-bodied of the Roussillon’s vin doux naturel wines. The wines are crafted in a variety of colours and styles. They generally have between 16 – 18% alcohol by volume, and 90 to 100 grams/litre of residual sugar.
A diverse range of winemaking techniques exists producing fruity, early bottled wines, alongside nutty, oxidative styles aged in a variety of vessels from barrels to foudres (large oak casks) to glass dames-jeannes/demijohns left out in the sun. The term Hors d’Âge can be applied to wines that undergo a minimum of five years of oxidative ageing. Highly oxidative wines, aged longer than five years, can be labeled Rancio.
The main categories of Banyuls wines are:
This is a reductive style of white Banyuls, protected from oxygen exposure throughout the winemaking process. Fermentation and ageing take place in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures to preserve freshness and fruity aromas. They can be bottled as of the 1st of May following the harvest. Aromas of citrus, orchard fruit, and white blossoms are common.
This is an oxidatively aged style of white Banyuls, called Ambré for its amber colour. To be eligible for this category, wines may not be released until the 1st of March in the third year following harvest. These rich, textural wines have intense dried citrus and raisined flavours.
Banyuls also produces small quantities of fortified rosé wines, in a fresh, youthful style. They feature notes of “currants, blueberries, and grenadine” according to the Roussillon Wines marketing association. Banyuls Rosé is made from both red and white grape varieties, mainly the Grenache family of grapes, with Macabeu and Tourbat.
This is a category of vintage dated red Banyuls wines vinified in stainless steel. Like Banyuls Blanc, they can be bottled in the May following harvest. These dense, fruit-forward, silky wines are only made in the best years.
The term Mise Tardive is reserved for Banyuls Rimage wines that are aged for longer periods before bottling (between one to three years).
Banyuls Tuilé (or Traditionnel)
This is the most common type of Banyuls, made primarily from Grenache Noir. Wines are aged in cellars until at least the third March following harvest. The term tuilé refers to the tawny colour taken on by the month after its long, oxidative ageing. Intense notes of figs and prunes are common in Banyuls Tuilé wines.
Banyuls Grand Cru
These superior quality Banyuls red wines are made with a minimum of 75% Grenache Noir and cannot be sold before the third June following harvest. The long ageing time results in powerful, concentrated wines with resolved tannins and heady, tertiary aromas of leather, mocha, tobacco, and dried fruit.