Sweets for My Sweet

This year the village of Beaumes de Venise has been celebrating 70 years of appellation contrôlée status for its sweet muscat wines. To cap the festivities the roads of the village were closed for the weekend of 10th and 11th August and the winemakers flung open their cellar doors to allcomers. I was there with glass (and notepad, pen and camera) in hand.

A village fête is nothing without an oompah band.

The style of wine – rich, viscous, strong, sweet and headily aromatic – is unique in the Rhône Valley, although similar wines can be found along the French Med. coast in Rivesaltes and Frontignan (and elsewhere), and further afield in places like the Greek island of Samos. In France, they are called Vins Doux Naturels (Naturally Sweet Wines) because all the sweetness comes from sugar that has accumulated naturally in the grapes as they ripen. The alcohol level (15-16º), on the other hand, isn’t so natural. That comes from a splash of grape spirit that gets added to the wine when it is only partially fermented, raising the alcohol level high enough to kill off the yeast that would otherwise convert the remaining sugar into “natural” alcohol. It’s that unconverted sugar that gives the wine its sweetness.

As you might imagine, a lusciously sweet wine of 15.5º alcohol is not to be swigged by the pint. One glass before (if you’re French) or after (anglophones) a meal is probably enough for most people, which means that Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (MBdV) often comes out only when friends or family are visiting. But it’s worth knowing that you can often buy half bottles and that in any case an opened (but re-stoppered) bottle will keep in the fridge for a week or two without losing too much of its freshness.

A vineyard in Beaumes de Venise with the Dentelles in the background.

The French often suggest drinking muscat with melon. I prefer apple and apricot tarts of the French kind, but muscat can very happily be drunk by itself as an alternative to pudding. Lots of producers also recommend pairing muscat with blue cheeses and foie gras (although not together). For me, the style is too obviously fruity and/or floral to work with more savoury food – leave that to the Sauternes. Muscat is hedonistic, yes, but doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) take itself that seriously.

There is also a far younger, separate appellation for dry red BdV, which was given “Cru” status with effect from the 2004 vintage, theoretically putting it on the same level as Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Hermitage. But with a few honourable exceptions, the wines just don’t justify their promotion from “named” Côtes du Rhône Villages standard. Even at a more local level, it is hard to understand why BdV was promoted ahead of the village of Cairanne, where there any number of good red wines.

Here are my notes on the muscats and (where they warrant it) the reds that I tasted. There are some notable omissions – the BdV growers’ co-operative’s wines haven’t been reviewed despite the fact that it is by far the biggest producer of the muscat and therefore the producer whose wines you are most likely to see outside France. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the co-op is extremely competent and the muscat wines good examples of their type (I still don’t like their reds though). Most of the estates making red BdV but not muscat weren’t at the fête, so haven’t been mentioned. You shouldn’t read anything into their absence.

Domaine Beauvalcinte “Les Trois Amours” BdV Rouge 2010

One of the few “no muscat” estates to turn up. This is a warm, spicy, red fruits and herbs blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, counoise and cinsaut.

Domaine Beauvalcinte red

Domaine des Bernardins Muscat de BdV 2012

Not the most aromatic at the moment – expect it to get more exotic over the next year – but there’s clean, bright grapefruit on the nose and the palate has weight and richness. The flavour spectrum is gewurztraminer-like, with rose petal and plenty of orange peel/confit. A good, clean, non-cloying finish. Excellent muscat. Available in the UK, USA and Australia – follow this link to wine-searcher.com to find out your local stockist.

Domaine des Bernardins Muscat

Domaine MathiFlo Muscat de BdV 2012

Very pale. Both the nose and the palate share a simple, slightly syrupy sweetness and not much else. Although again the finish is bright and fresh.

Domaine MathiFlo

Domaine de Durban Muscat de BdV 2010

Exotically perfumed and the palate has great balance between rich sweetness and crisp acidity. Very clean cut. Honey and citrus. Very good. Probably my favourite of the day. Available in the UK and at plenty of  USA merchants.

The red is pretty decent, too, without reaching the heights.

Domaine de Durban – one of the best muscats.

Domaine l’Arche des Garances BdV Rouge 2012

The first red that made me sit up and take notice and it remained the best I tasted all day. For once, it was a red with a spark of life and personality – it felt like living wine. It does have a whiff of the farmyard – I suspect there’s a fair bit of syrah here – although it’s not aggressive and it should fade with a bit of ageing. More importantly, this organic red has richness and concentration, with lots of peppery black fruit. I didn’t know this estate at all, but clearly one to watch.

Claude Pleindoux (“Fullsweet” in English). How appropriate.

Domaine l’Arche des Garances Muscat de BdV 2012

It doesn’t stand out in the same way as the red, but the balance of sweetness and acidity, freshness and weight, is good. Nicely aromatic, too. Overall, a real find so it’s a shame I can’t find the estate’s wines on the export market.

Domaine St Roch Muscat de BdV

No mention of a vintage on this one, but the pale colour and floral aromatics make me think it must be a 2012. At the lighter end of the muscat spectrum. Rose, orange flowerand (especially) quince.

Stéphanie with her Domaine St Roch muscat

Domaine de Fenouillet “Terres Blanches” BdV Rouge 2011

The cheapest of 3 red blends on show and the only one I tasted. Hurrah! It tastes like proper red wine. Dark fruit and a bit gamy/meaty/tarry. I would have guessed at some carignan in the blend, but it seems not – just the usual grenache, syrah, mourvedre. Not exactly happy-go-lucky (despite being described as “easy-drinking”), but it is concentrated and only 8€ or so.

A good range at Fenouillet

Domaine de Fenouillet Muscat de BdV 2011

There’s more than one type of muscat at Fenouillet. And the little girl who can hardly see over the counter was pouring – Rhone producers like to keep it in the family.

Straw gold colour. Apricots and mango on the nose. Just slightly too sweet for my taste – I preferred a 2010 I drank recently, which seemed less so – but this is a real crowd-pleaser.

Both reds and muscat are available in America and the UK.

Chateau Saint Sauveur BdV Rouge 2010

The first signs of maturity on the nose. It smells warm and garrigue-y, with the herbal aromas of southern France. Then there’s a wave of ripe grenache red fruit flavours with soft, round tannins. To drink now with pleasure.

St Sauveur muscat, red and rosé

Chateau Saint Sauveur “Cuvée des Moines” Muscat de BdV 2010

A distinctive nose that mixes lemon meringue and something herbal, verveine or lime flower perhaps. On the palate, too, that citrus side comes through, so that the sweetness is balanced by good acidity. My tasting note said “yum”.

According to wine-searcher, Killer Wine Deals in California sells the 2009. They don’t exactly sound like Berry Brothers.

Domaine La Ligière Muscat de BdV 2011

La Ligière muscat

This has a slightly bitter, pithy edge, like taking the white as well as the zest off an orange. Not my cup of tea, but if it sounds like yours you can pick it up in the USA.

Domaine Pierre Rougon (Font Sante) Muscat de BdV 2012

The muscat tasted was the 2012 in the middle. There is also a rather richer 2010 (right) bottled under the Font Sante label.

A fresh, almost delicate style that recalls flowers and ripe melon. Not as rich or sweet as some, but a nice balance for those who prefer a lighter style. Available in the UK and USA.

Domaine Bouletin Muscat de BdV 2011

Floral and easy to enjoy, but fairly one dimensional. Available at Ross Duke in Melbourne.

A busy stand at Bouletin.

Domaine de la Pierre du Coq Muscat de BdV 2012

Domaine de la Pierre du Coq

Nice acidity, but I smell a touch of nail varnish remover which mars an otherwise fresh, clean style.

Other omissions: most notably the excellent muscats of Domaines Beaumalric, but I know those well as I work with the estate, and the co-ops of Gigondas and Vacqueyras (only because I work with family-owned wineries and so concentrate on those at tastings). Beaumalric’s wines you can buy in Australia, UK and USA. I also skipped Domaine Rosemarry’s muscat after not liking their red at all; Domaine Alain Ignace I somehow managed to miss, although others like it; Domaine Richard, simply because it was out of the way and I was fagged out after 3 hours in the hot sun. Not professional, I know, but honest.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours and one of the longer ones at that. There are plenty of other things to read here and lots of much shorter pieces on our Facebook page. There’s also the website itself, where there are winemaker profiles and suggestions for things to do in the region. Please have a look around.








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