It is a warm night in the month of May. Everything that has come out of the kitchen to your table seems to be shouting at the top of its lungs that it is spring. The baby lettuces with strawberries and marcona almonds, the fava bean raviolis, the hamachi skewers with avocado and pomelo. The gruner veltliner you ordered has paired up famously with these items, and the bottle of frappato that succeeded it has also proven itself an amiable companion to both the pork tenderloin with asparagus and pea tendrils with gnocchi and romesco, and the pan- roasted halibut with arancini in a green garlic sauce.
Now your plates have been cleared and your table swept for crumbs. You’re perusing the after-dinner wines list, in search of something to pair with the chocolate madeleines you have just ordered. You’re trying to decide between the vintage ports when your waiter recommends you try the Banyuls, something you’ve never heard of.
Sometimes referred to as the french cousin of port, Banyuls gets its name from the coastal town of Banyuls Sur Mer in the south of France, once a sleepy fishing town that attracted artists like Matisse and Picasso because it was a cheap place to live. Since their discovery and subsequent portrayal of the sun-drenched mediterranean seaside in their paintings, Banyuls Sur Mer would never be quite so sleepy again. But by no means does the history of Banyuls begin or end with the Fauvists.
Banyuls is a grenache-based fortified wine that has been made since the thirteenth century. It was then that a physician and alchemist named Arnaud de Villeneuve discovered the method of mutage, when he figured out that the fermentation of wine could be halted by adding pure grape spirit to it, thereby leaving it sweet. Banyuls is allowed to ferment until it has about six percent alcohol, then spirit is added, raising the alcohol level to about fifteen percent.
The name de Villaneuve gave to wines made this way was vins doux naturels, or “naturally sweet wines.” Though the name is somewhat misleading, the process has been used for ages, and adapted to the making of other fortified wines such as port, muscat, and madeira. The method of making vins doux naturels today is basically unaltered from when it was first invented.
Banyuls is only one of the fortified wines made in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which is home to some of the most ancient vineyards of the world. Centuries-old evidence of Greek and Roman influence can be seen today in the elaborate terracing crisscrossing the hills of the province. The seven appellations of the Languedoc-Roussillon cover the rugged mediterranean coastline between France and Spain, where the summers are intensely hot and the winters are dominated by the tramontane winds that blow dry, cold, and often violently from the north. Here. the hardy grenache vines struggle in the dry poor soil. The precipitous seaside slopes insist that all harvesting be done painstakingly and by hand.
What this yields is a sweet wine that is a classic companion to semi-sweet or dark chocolate. While rich and full-bodied, it is less sweet and syrupy than a typical dessert wine. It possesses a lovely garnet color and a good balanced acidity that makes it come off as more delicate than vintage port.
When you taste it after a bite of your warm chocolate madeleine, you taste black plums and cherries. When you taste the madeleine after a sip of your Banyuls, you notice orange bark toward the back of your tongue, espresso and raisin somewhere in the middle. It is lovely. Not only do you like them both but they seem to really like each other.