Banyuls wines come from the south-eastern corner of Roussillon, southern France, just a few miles from the border with Spain. These sweet vins doux naturels come in wide range of hues, from golden-green (Banyuls Blanc) to amber (Banyuls Ambré) and the intense garnet of the standard Banyuls Rouge.
Unusual among France's vins doux naturels, all Banyuls wines are made predominantly from Grenache grapes of various colors. The Muscat varieties (the mainstay of southern France's sweet wines) are permitted for use, but only in very small proportions. Dark-skinned Grenache Noir is by far the dominant and preferred variety in Banyuls – it must constitute at least 50% of the blend for red Banyuls (75% for the Grand Cru wines). Pink-skinned Grenache Gris is next in line, followed by Grenache Blanc and a host of other southern French varieties including Mourvedre, Carignan, Macabeu and Tourbat.
As a Grenache-based sweet wine, Banyuls is comparable in style to Maury, from northern Roussillon and Rasteau, from the southern Rhone Valley. It is one of the world's very few fortified red wines, and stands alongside Commandaria from Cyprus and most obviously Port. Although Banyuls' winemakers fiercely defend the uniqueness of their wines, red Banyuls bears more than a passing resemblance to younger, fruitier styles of Port. The bouquet of almost all Banyuls wine includes aromas of baked fruits, prunes and sweet spices. The red wines, particularly in their youth, bear Grenache's trademark aroma of stewed, spiced strawberries, which could easily be mistaken for the port-grape Touriga Franca.
The Banyuls-producing vineyards cover about 2500 acres (1000ha) of sun-baked, terraced vineyards looking out over the western Mediterranean. The corresponding appellation for this area's dry table wines is Collioure, the name of Banyuls' neighboring village.
Banyuls wines are made from grapes harvested in the early fall, when they reach a naturally high level of sweetness. The reds are fermented as whole berries, while the whites and rosés are fermented free from any pulp, seeds or skins. During the long maceration period, which lasts from three to six weeks, the naturally high levels of grape sugars are translated into a final alcohol level of more than 15%. The process of mutage (the use of sulfur or alcohol additions to stop must fermenting) is used to stop the fermentation process at the appropriate time, and establish a balance between residual sugar and final alcohol levels. Up to 10% pure alcohol may be added to the wines to bring them up to their target strength. All Banyuls wines are barrel aged for at least 12 months – 30 months in the case of the Banyuls Grand Cru wines.
The term rancio is applied to those Banyuls wines which have been subject to specific and intentional oxidative ageing. This takes place in oak casks of various sizes, and sometimes in large, basket-wrapped glass containers known as bonbonnes, which are left open-ended to allow the wine to oxidize. Another term used in association with these wines is rimage – meaning 'vintage' in the local dialect.
The appellation laws surrounding the production of Banyuls wine date from 1936, and are some of the most stringent and specific in all of France. Most significantly, irrigation of any form is forbidden – not just for the growing season (as is the case in Chateauneuf-du-Pape), but at any point of the year. Slightly more mysterious is the clause stating that if fruit trees are grown and harvested in any local vineyard, it will automatically lose its right to claim the Banyuls appellation.
One clause in the appellation law document (known as a cahier des charges) states that grape variety names must not appear on the labels of AOC Banyuls wines, unless the wine in question is made entirely from one variety. The mention of 'Muscat' anywhere in the name or on the label is specifically forbidden under any circumstances. This last sub-clause was included to maintain the distinction between these highly regarded and relatively rare wines and the less-prestigious Muscat-predominant sweet wines of the nearby Rivesaltes appellation. In any case, as the current laws stand, only Grenache could be used to make a single-variety wine under the appellation.