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Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Cuvée La Coume 1993

This week, something of a change, as I take a look at one of France's most fascinating appellations, Banyuls. This is one of just a handful of appellations for vin doux naturel, a sweet wine which is produced by the addition of grape spirit to the fermenting must. Arresting the fermentation leaves sugar that would have otherwise been converted to alcohol, and thus sweetness is ensured. The grape spirit itself compensates for the reduction in alcohol that would otherwise result, and in fact it over-compensates. With fortified wines such as these the added alcohol is extraordinarily pure, typically 95% ABV, but as it accounts usually for only 10% of the final blend, the wine itself usually ends up with an alcoholic strength of between 15 and 20%.

Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Cuvée La Coume 1993The base wines are largely Grenache Noir, as is the case for many wines from Maury and Rivesaltes, these being the two other significant Roussillon appellations for this style of wine. The regulations do differ somewhat between appellations, however, and some wines in these two appellations may be wholly white. In Banyuls, though, Grenache Noir must account for at least 50% of the blend and at least 75% for the Banyuls Grand Cru appellation. Nevertheless, even the appellation regulations for the red wines of Banyuls allow for several varieties that are white. The other grapes that may be included include the white grapes Maccabeu, Tourbat and the Muscats, and the red varieties Carignan, Cinsaut and Syrah, provided these latter varieties do not exceed 10% of the final blend. If you find a white Banyuls, it is still largely Grenache Noir, but the juice has been taken off the skins before they could impart any colour to the wine. The same is true of pink Banyuls.

The curious term rimage also does something to tell us of the style of wine. Although many Banyuls are produced in the traditional oxidative fashion, this style being known as tuilé, other wines are handled in a more modern fashion, protecting the wines from oxidation. The rimage style is reserved for superior vintages, and involves the addition of alcohol to the fermenting must when still in contact with the grape solids, followed by a long maceration, typically three to six weeks, and then early bottling after only six to twelve months. A decent analogy, I suppose, is vintage port. Likewise, the rimage mise tardive style is aged in foudres for up to three years, and if looking for another Portuguese equivalent perhaps the late bottled vintage style is the best match.

And so to the wine, which is a 1993 Banyuls Rimage, the Cuvée La Coume from Domaine du Mas Blanc. This has an attractive, deep red hue when poured in the glass. The nose carries sweet plump fruit, notes of toffee as well as a little vegetal axle grease - a rather obtuse aroma to cite I know, but these is without pretence how I interpret this particular scent. It is something I tend to associate more with Pedro Ximénez than with the Grenache-dominated wines of Roussillon. Dark notes of treacle. And there are dried fruits too, raisins and sultanas, a strong seam of dried cranberries and cherries, and also a little brazil nut, as well as a little spirity note wafting in the background, belying the wine's 17% alcohol perhaps. Expansive and readily showing a velvety texture, due in part to the residual sugar, part due to the vein of alcohol running beneath it all, this wine has a firm composition, sweetness but with a good tannic grip underneath, and there is fresh acidity to the fore, intermingled with the wood, nut and toffee-tinged substance, which leads to a rather tightly bound finish. This is really very good indeed, and it is very enjoyable now, although I am quite certain there is no rush with this one. 17+/20 (17/3/08)

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