Amateur wine makers like Thomas Jefferson tried their hand at it. Twenty-five appellations in France are dedicated to it. The most famous of it comes from the left bank of the Garonne River in Saunternes-Barsac, south of Bordeaux and not too far from where I said “I do” to this French life.
Liquor wine or les vins liquoreux are also known as Noble Sweet Wines in English. They have a history much like that of their cousins: champagne and cognac. Developed over the centuries by a combination of mistake and innovation, the origins of this type of wine are thought to go back to the 16th century in Tokaji, Hungry (then part of Russia) when “noble wine” was first reported. The roots of liquor wine, however, stretch even further back than that. Notes in antiquity books lead us back to the Templars enjoying a “macerated” wine they found in Holy Land of Constantinople, and we can even go farther back to the Romans and Greeks telling us they celebrated their feasts with a “satrien” wine the color and texture of honey. Today, we’d call all of these by the common term liquor wines.
For over four-hundred years, France has taken the practice of making these sweet wines to new heights. The secret of the recipe is that the grapes are picked very late in the season, once they have dried almost completely, are wrinkled much like the dried raisins I ate as a child out of small Sun Maid boxes, and covered with a film called Botrytis cinerea. Now for those of you who are thinking, ‘Yuck! Fungus in wine, no thanks!’ I know how you feel. I remember the first time I learned as a child that yogurt was made with bacteria; I swore I’d never eat it again. How things change. North Americans grow up learning that bacteria is Bad and our teachers sometimes forget to remind us, if they haven’t forgotten themselves, that Good bacteria is essential to life too. Anyway, this Botrytis is one such good guy.
Over the last few decades, France has expanded its Noble Sweet Wine appellations beyond the South West to include Jura (mid-east France), Alsace (north-east France), Anjou (mid-east France – Grenoble) and Touraine (mid north-west – Angers). One of the most famous regions for liquor wine is Jurançon, in the valley of the Dordogne (south-west), whose wine was served at King Henri IV’s baptism in the late 1500s. Remember, he’s the French king that converted to Catholicism in order to take the throne and then subsequently signed the Edit de Nantes in 1589 guaranteeing religion freedom between the long warring Protestants and Catholics in France. He was ironically enough assassinated by a religious fanatic in 1610. Another famous liquor wine region, if less historical significant, is Monbazillac found south of Bergerac.
The first time I tried a vin liquoreux happened to coincide with another great first in my life: the first time I met my to-be parents-in-law. It was a beautiful autumn evening and the sun was dark golden hanging low upon the horizon. I had just arrived at their country house in the Dordogne. We were talking in the Great Room by the fireplace, the family crest of blue and gold and silver glittering in the last rays of sunlight that shone through the tall French doors. My father-in-law discretely disappeared down to the wine cellar for a moment and reemerged with a dusty bottle in his hand. The date 1975 was lightly faded on the otherwise illegible label. The color of the wine was a deep honey gold, much like the light showering the room. He poured this liquid sun into glasses and we waited a moment swirling the wine around with our wrists in order, I learned that day, to open up the wine’s bouquet. Slightly chilled from the cellar, the wine burst on my lips with a fruity sweetness as enchanting as a child’s first lick of a Popsicle on a hot summer’s afternoon.
The name liquor wine is a bit misleading. This is not as strong as cognac, not by a long shot. And although often confused with the Moelleux, another sweet wine, the Moelleux have a min of 10g of sugar/liter while the liquor wines have at least 45g, sometime much more. In fact, liquor wine doesn’t have that much more alcohol than regular wine. The latter resembles, for those of you from Canada, the intensity and flavor of an Ontario ice wine. The difference between the two being that although both processes include picking the grapes at the margins of their death, one relies on the frosty temperatures of an Ontario fall while the other depends on the growth of our friendly Botrytis cinerea.
These wines are excellent as an aperitif or served with foie gras or paté as an entrée or poured over a sliced fresh melon appetizer. It also goes perfectly at the end of the meal with the cheese course or as a desert wine.
Thanks to an article in the Figaro magazine this week, here are suggestions of excellent liquor wines, should you find yourself rummaging around the wine store looking for inspiration:
- By appellation, name/chateau, recommended year, notes.
- If there is a link, it is to where I found the wine in North America.
- Note that these appellations also produce other white as well as red wines. Look for the Domaine name or the Chateau.
- These wins are sometimes referred to in North America as: VENDANGE TARDIVE, literally translates to late grape harvesting.
- Chateau Guiraud (there are four vineyards which belong the the renown French Peugeot family), Chateau Gilete,
- Chateau d’Yquem (2009)
- Domaine Bru-Baché
- Chateau Pierre-Bise
- Chateau de Fesles
- Château Soucherie (2009)
- Domaine Macle (2004)
I found a bottle from Tokaji, Hungry at the LCBO.