Dessert Wines from Southern France

As I mentioned in my earlier post this week: I remember the first time I sipped a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a vin doux naturel (VDN, naturally sweet wine) from France’s Southern Rhône Valley. It was with Patrick Soard and his daughter Justine, of Domaine de Fenouillet, on their property – neighbors with Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail. The domaine is certified organic, practicing biodynamics (not yet certified), under the guidance of Soard and his brother, Vincent Soard. They are the fourth generation of vignerons in the family line, Justine Soard (Master in International Wine Trade) will be the fifth generation when she and her cousin Valentin Soard (wine student) take over.

Vin doux naturel, Southern Rhône Wine, Dessert Wine, French Wine

Muscat de Beaumes de Venise rosé from Domaine de Fenouillet. Credit: Jill Barth

Southern Rhône Dessert Wines

Family-run domaines such as Fenouillet are the standard in the Southern Rhône. Generation after generation maintains cultural and regional footprinting while making effort to step into the world through importation and connections. VDN represents a product that mirrors this balance of yesterday’s ways emerging fresh into a range of new tastes. VDN in specific and dessert wines in general, in my opinion, tend to be the darlings of two kinds of people: those that know because they’ve been drinking it a long while (these wines gained office AOP status in the 1940’s) and those that happened to get a taste of them through some alignment of good fortune and can’t believe what they’ve been missing.

Dessert wine, sweet wine from France, southern French Wine

Made from Muscat à petits grains noir and blanc, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is made primarily as a white wine, though limited amounts of rosé and red are made each year. Credit: Jill Barth

Until last year, I fell into the second category.

Tasting the Soards’ VDN was textural as much as flavorful. The balance of sweet and savory, viscosity and lightness, of freshness and stability – this presented a new context for me. In the realm of French dessert wines, one seeks to find new ways to describe what’s in one’s mouth, not unlike a frantic game of Pictionary where players hope that someone out there gets it, and the struggle becomes understanding.

VDN wines are made by adding neutral brandy (a distilled spirit made from wine or grape juice) to a finished wine for fortification. Other dessert wines from around the country are crafted in a variety of methods (late harvest and botrytis). When I visited Domaine de Fenouillet I was lucky enough to see vendage tardive (late harvest) Muscat grapes on the vine and – though this isn’t integral to the production of VDN – there was botrytis on the grapes. Botrytis adds sweetness, viscosity, and flavor due to the presence of phenylacetaldehyde and is the salient factor in Sauternes, Monbazillac, Saussignac and Barsac dessert wines, which are the bread and butter of Sud-Ouest and Bordeaux dessert wines. Seeing the botrytis on the grapes in Beaumes de Venise provided an interesting look at the way grapes behave when coaxed past the traditional harvest date.

Late harvest, vendage tardive, vignobles, vineyards

Botrytis on Muscat grapes in October 2016 in Beaumes de Venise. (Note the bee on these organic vines.) Credit: Jill Barth

Another VDN from the region is AOP Rasteau. Rasteau is a neighboring Cru and while I won’t get technical, it helps to have a mild understanding how wine is classified in the Rhône Valley. Crus represent the most specific regional areas for wine grape growing and winemaking designation. Within a single Cru, multiple Appellations d’Origine Protégée (AOPs) can be situated. In the case of both Beaumes de Venise and Rasteau, a specific AOP has been achieved for VDN. While this might get confusing, the idea here is that these are particular wines, from a particular place, made in a particular way – aside from being tasty, they are a precise bit of thread in the fabric of the area.

Coteaux des Travers, Dentelles de Montmirail, Southern Rhone

A view of Rasteau from the elevated vineyards of Domaine des Coteaux des Travers. Credit: Jill Barth

As VDN from Beaumes de Venise is made from Muscat, VDN from Rasteau is made with Grenache (Noir, Gris, or Blanc). They come in a range of styles including white and rosé (like Beaumes de Venise) and also rouge, ambré, tuilé, grenat, and rancio. A touch technical here: blanc and grenat are made reductively in an oxygen-free environment. Ambré and tuilé are aged in the barrel for 60 months, earning them an hors d’âge label. Rancio is the term applied to a wine with a caramelized flavor, similar to Madiera.

South-facing slopes, pebbly soil, and warm night temperatures can encourage over-ripening (Coteaux des Travers, one of the domaines that I visited in Rasteau, is aptly named Domaine of the Slopes of the Rising Sun) and these geographical factors lend favorably to the production of VDN, which originally became an AOP in the 1940’s. Coteaux des Travers is Demeter Certified biodynamic and is shepherded by Robert Charavin; the domaine has been in his family since 1920.

Rouge, sweet wine, dessert wine, French Wine

Coteaux des Travers Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau Ambré 2011 and Domaine la Soumade Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau 2015. Credit: Jill Barth

Dessert Wines from Roussillon

Vin Doux Naturel are not isolated to the Southern Rhône Valley – in nearby Roussillon, Rivesaltes produces VDN and has done so for 750, according to Les Vignobles de Constance et du Terrassous. This co-op is comprised of 70 growers nurturing 800 hectares resulting in several VDNs including an hors d’âge with Grenache blanc – their age goes up from there; available now there is even an 1974!

I recently had the opportunity to experience a VDN Ambré from Domaine de Rancy, owned by Brigitte et Jean-Hubert Verdaguer – they are one of the few remaining producers in the area that produce the rancio-style VDNs. The ambré is also special – made from a grape that many lovers of French wine haven’t sampled. According to the domaine, “This rare wine is made from a white grape called Macabeau that is native to the Roussillon region. The grapes are hand-picked late in the season, pressed, fermented, and fortified in a tank. Only the best wine is chosen to be aged in barrels for four years minimum. The wines are bottled as needed and are neither fined or filtered. The vineyards are farmed in a reasonably organic manner with minimal use of chemicals.”

This wine spent 12 years in the barrel in order to achieve an astounding level of complexity and length. At a retail price of $30, the level of expertise and craftsmanship (rarely do I use that word when describing wine, but in this case, I feel it is apt) makes this an artful, not to mention satisfying, bottle – well worth the modest price tag.

Rousillion wine, vin doux naturel, wine as gifts, French dessert wine

How to Serve Rivesaltes by Domaine de Rancy

So how do we best enjoy these dessert wines from France? The Verdaguers from Domaine de Rancy offer advice:

This Rivesaltes is a fortified wine made in the old ambré style rarely produced today. The wine is oxidized which means that it will not change in character after being opened. This allows one to enjoy it slowly over the course of weeks or months. This versatile wine is best served at room temperature (note, in the Rhône Valley they serve it chilled) to fully appreciate the intense, complex aromas that develop in the glass. It can be served as an aperitif with nuts, olives, and a variety of hors-d’oeuvres. As a dessert wine, it goes very well with bread pudding, dates, figs, spice cake, pumpkin pie, or on its own as an after-dinner drink. It is truly a delightful experience that captures the warmth and spice of the South of France.

The French Winophiles

Join us on Saturday, December 16th at 10am CST on Twitter. Find the hashtag #Winophiles and explore our questions and answers, photos and articles, recipes and travel plans.

Here’s what’s on >

Discovering Maury AOC with Susannah at Avvinare

Quince Crumble with Lillet Blanc Cordials created by Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla

Affordable France: Bordeaux Reds and Sauternes Wines #Winophiles served by Gwen at Wine Predator

2010 Cave de Rasteau “Signature” Vin Doux Naturel and Brutti Ma Buoni #Winophiles written by Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog

2011 Châteu Grand-Jauga Sauternes presented by Amber at Napa Food and Vine

The Sweet Secret of Barsac: Château Doisy-Daëne #Winophiles comes from Lynn at Savor the Harvest 

But First, Dessert! Get to Know French Dessert Wines #Winophiles with Liz at What’s in that Bottle

Revealing Roussillon’s Sweeter Side from Michelle at Rockin Red Blog

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Sauternes with Jeff at FoodWineClick!

How to Pair Sauternes with Dessert served up by Jane at Always Ravenous

Here at L’Occasion we tuck into Dessert Wines from Southern France

21 thoughts on “Dessert Wines from Southern France

  1. So cool your first experience with VDNs was actually in Southern Rhone. Mine was in my house. Yours is much better. I really enjoy them, but then again I enjoy all sweet wines. I also like to challenge the idea that they are only meant to pair with dessert. I think most are versatile enough to pair with certain main courses if chosen carefully. Thanks for hosting Jill.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michelle! I found that they paired better (my opinion) with the cheese course instead of dessert on most occasions – not entirely sweet, but complex. Happy New Year to you!


  2. What a great article Jill. Your writing is an inspiration to me.
    Like you, I “fell” into the second category a bit by happenstance when I went to a tasting featuring dessert wines from around the world. A few were from France and quite memorable! Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season!

    Liked by 1 person

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