Trends in wine can be hard to understand. Current fashion, for example, catapults high-scoring “cult” wines, often more suitable for tasting than for drinking, to frenzied popularity and stratospheric prices. By contrast, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, a well priced and versatile wine that is equally at home before dinner as it is at the end of the meal, risks extinction. And that would be a tragedy…because these sweet wines can be exceptional.
With only about 1,200 acres and a total annual production of just over 100,000 cases–an amount Gallo might spill in a week–Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is tiny. But in this case, size doesn’t matter. This is an appellation to explore and to know by any standard.
Yet, despite this appellation’s diminutive output, there is plenty of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise available in the U.S. Though fewer than 15 private producers bottle Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise–among them Domaine des Bernardins, Domaine de Durban, and Domaine de la Pigeade (to name just three of my favorites), there’s also an excellent cooperative, Balma Venitia, as well as leading Rhône négociants, such as Délas, Jaboulet, Gabriel Meffre and Vidal-Fleury, that offer fine examples.
A Unique Grape and Wine
Now, what exactly is Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise? In short, it is a lightly fortified sweet wine made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, a grape that Jancis Robinson describes as the “most noble” variety of Muscat, grown exclusively in the eponymous southern Rhône village of Beaumes-de-Venise. This small grape (hence, “Petits Grains”) has very high natural acidity, an asset for making sweet wines. (The grape also goes by the name of Muscat de Frontignan and Moscato d’Asti, among others, and needs to be distinguished from the inferior variety, Muscat Alexandria, which has a larger berry and low acidity).
It’s a unique sweet wine because it is made from naturally ripe grapes not attacked by a fungus, botrytis, a.k.a, the “noble rot.” Most sweet wines, such as Sauternes, Germany’s Beerenauslese or other late harvest Rieslings, are made from botrytis-affected grapes. With those wines, the fungus pierces the grapes’ skins, which releases water and concentrates the sugar and acids. In contrast, the balance of sweetness and acidity found in Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise comes from the inherent nature of the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grape.
Fortification Solved the Problem
The tradition of fortification for Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise came about as a product of the 14th century and an example of necessity being the mother of invention. The Muscat had such high sugar levels at harvest that traditional fermentation proved a fitful, on-again, off-again operation. Fermentation would start immediately after harvest, but stop with the onset of winter. With luck, the yeast would “awaken” in spring and fermentation would continue–or not. It was an impractical and inconsistent process that occurred slowly over two years. The pragmatic solution, which has continued to this day, was to stop fermentation by adding pure alcohol when the sugar levels reaches about 120 g/L, which killed the yeast and raised the alcohol of the now finished, sweet wine to about 15 percent (for comparison, Port is fortified to 20 percent).
An Illustrious History
No “Johnny-come-lately,” the Muscat grape is likely one of the world’s earliest varieties. Pliny the Elder, in his The Natural History (Book 14, Chapter 4.2 “Ninety-One Varieties of the Vine”), was likely alluding to it when he described the apiana vine, the one most planted in Etruria (current day Tuscany) so named because the bees were fond of it sweetness.
During the Papal reign of the 14th century, Beaumes-de-Venise was a duchy of the Pope. A Papal decree limited the amount of sweet wine any family could keep for personal use to 40 liters/year because it was needed in Avignon, supposedly for mass. This prohibition explains why there are only small estates and not large ones even today in Beaumes-de-Venise. After all, if most of the wine went to the Pope–at a price determined by the Pope–it didn’t make sense to devote significant acreage to Muscat.
Though the French authorities awarded Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise AOC status in 1945 (retroactive to the 1943 vintage), its surge in popularity occurred after a severe frost in the area in 1956 forced farmers to replace their frozen apricot and olive trees with vines. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise rivaled the sweet wines from Germany and Bordeaux in popularity in the 1970s. In 2005, it was elevated to cru status, putting it on the same pedigree level of the quality pyramid as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But now its fortunes are up in the air.
Ideal Setting but a Shrinking Appellation
Beaumes-de-Venise, a sleepy village, sits at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, just northeast of Avignon and one of the southern Rhône’s most dramatic settings. A narrow road, what the French call a “chemin de chevre” (goat path), separates the vineyards of Beaumes-de-Venise from Gigondas. The village turns out to be the perfect locale for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains because its position nestled against these rugged limestone cliffs protects the vineyards from harsh Mistral winds. The soil is very warm, well suited for this grape, since the rocky terrain gives off accumulated heat during the night.
Over the last decade the appellation has shrunk as growers replace their Muscat vines with Grenache, Syrah and other red varieties used for red Beaumes-de-Venise due to the burgeoning worldwide demand for hefty southern Rhône reds. Thierry Vaute, who with his family owns Domaine de la Pigeade, notes that his customers have recently been asking for red wines.
Additionally, in 2005, the elevation of the red Beaumes-de-Venise to cru status, comparable to neighboring Gigondas, Vacqueryas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, boosted the prestige–and value–of the reds of the village and gave growers yet another reason to plant red grapes in place of Muscat.
As if changing tastes weren’t enough of a problem, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is expensive to make, yet does not command high prices on the retail shelf. Harvest is tedious because the vines are planted on narrow terraces–the only suitable way to plant on the steeply-graded terrain–and pickers need to make multiple passes, harvesting only the ripest grapes. Average yields run a meager 20-25 hl/ha (about 1.5 glasses/vine). As Claude Chabran, President of the appellation’s major cooperative, says, “Harvest is like harvesting syrup. Everything is sticky. At least the bees are happy.”
A Range of Styles
Looking to broaden markets for their wines, producers are exploring a variety of styles for Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. Gabriel Meffre, the noted négociant, bottles a lively fresh and delicate aperitivo style under their Laurus label. The 2013 is particularly enchanting ($25 for 500 ml bottle).
An established traditional producer, Domaine des Bernardins, a family-run enterprise spanning six generations and 200 years whose efforts resulted in the appellation being awarded AOC status, produces a non-vintage Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, labeled “Hommage,” that has been aged in tank anywhere from three to five years. Its appealing, sherry-like oxidative style makes it perfect as an aperitif or as desert. In contrast, their 2011 ($35), slightly pink because of a small proportion of red Muscat grapes, is honeyed, yet fresh, with notes of pears and peaches offset by enlivening acidity.
Domaine de Durban, another leading producer, has a fabulously complex 2011 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($31) that delivers panoply of honeyed, nuanced stone fruit flavors balanced by vigorous acidity.
Domaine de la Pigeade, a relative newcomer to the appellation, having been founded less than 20 years ago, is now the largest private producer of Beaumes-de-Venise since the former leading producer switched a substantial portion of their vineyard to red varieties, according to Vaute. They’ve broken from the traditionally honeyed style and make a floral, fresh and lighter rendition of Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. Their very appealing 2013 is hard to resist and serves double duty as either an aperitif or as desert ($15 for a 375 ml bottle).
Branching out to capture the rosé-seeking crowd, Balma Venitia produces a lively, delicately sweet Rosé Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise using a mixture of the red and white Muscat grape. Indeed, the AOC regulations allow all three, white, red, or rosé, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise because some Muscat grapes are red.
Despite fortification, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, like vintage Port, develops with bottle age. The 2009 from Domaine des Bernardins, almost orange in color, has the nutty-like overlay imparted by age buttressed by the ever-present balancing acidity. A quick search of what’s available on the U.S. retail market shows wines from the 2013 to the 2006 vintages, so select younger ones if you’re searching for fresher examples and older ones if the sherry-like oxidative profile suits your taste.
Whether opting for a traditionally richer version or a lighter aperitivo-styled Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, the wines need to be served chilled, but not ice cold. Though the French recommend it with blue cheese or foie gras, I find it pairs well with a variety of moderate to strongly flavored cheeses and even spicy Asian fare. I do not advise serving it–or any sweet wine for that matter–with desert, because I find the mutual sweetness fight and distorts both the flavors of the desert and of the wine. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is often available in half bottles (375 ml), which will easily serve four. An unfinished bottle can be stored in the refrigerator and will be fine for several days, even up to a week. Try a bottle this holiday season. You and your guests will be pleased.
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December 10, 2014
E-mail me your thoughts about Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein