This must be the finest co-op wine in the world, and one of the best-value French wines available anywhere. It dazzled those who attended my second (Eclectic) wine tasting at Davos last week, particularly since some of them were expecting wines that cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds a bottle. Any long-serving visitor to this site will know of my enthusiasm for this corner of Roussillon, the upper Agly valley inland from Perpignan which is today producing some of France’s most exciting dry whites and reds (see, for example, this article from 2004).
But these rich, sticky, deep mahogany wines are what the area has traditionally produced, very sweet, long-aged vins doux naturels from variously-coloured Grenache grapes sun-shrivelled on the bushvines struggling for survival on the arid schists around Maury. That schist gives them great firmness and the long ageing in old casks results in appetising rancio flavours, the decongestant tang that comes from long, hot oak ageing. Alcohol has generally been added at some point to stop fermentation so that alcohol levels are usually around 16 per cent. These are wines to sip at the end of a meal with cheese or chocolate rather than being suitable to drink in quantity. They last well in an opened bottle.
A few years ago UK importer Roy Richards of Richards Walford (an investor in Le Soula, an early new wave Agly wine) discovered that the Maury co-operative, Les Vignerons de Maury, had stocks of very old vins doux naturels and suggested they were bottled in half litres using labels he designed. The idea was to bottle and number each cask separately. The one that was so gloriously rich yet tangy last week,with the most fabulously long finish, was cask 905, currently offered by Reid Wines for £11.50 plus VAT a half litre. Andrew Chapman of surf4wine.co.uk is offering half-litres of cask 885 for just £11.04 including VAT, Yumyum Wine. You'll see many different cask numbers and the wines do vary, from more porty to more madeira-like. I suggest you quiz individual retailers. Our 905 was more like madeira than port.
Here’s how Richards first described these wines to his customers five years ago: “Richards Walford is not famous for its love of co-opératives, but have nonetheless bought for the last 23 years from the one in Mesnil-sur-Oger, Champagne. For rather less long, we have known Thierry Cazach, the dynamic director of the Maury co-opérative, who faces an uphill struggle to keep it viable. A few years ago, we were told about their substantial stocks of very old wine, ageing in the roof space of their rabbit warren of buildings, often in 100 year old demi-muids. The vast majority of these contain mother wines dating from the late 1920s. When we have one bottled, we take care only to draw about 1/3 of the wine, which is then topped up with a single vintage, currently 1990. This Solera system is similar to that practised in Jerez and Madeira, and it is to these wines that old rancio Maury bears the most resemblance. To be interesting, the barrels have to have developed volatile acidity: the French consumer does not like this, and we are the beneficiaries. I identified 15 demi-muids - all quite different in style, but all interesting - on my last trip. If anyone is interested in buying a specific bottling, I have analyses and tasting notes for all of them. I expect to be able to keep this project going for some time yet, as there are about another 200 barrels I have yet to taste!”
Richards has since discovered yet another set of forgotten casks of vin doux naturel in the co-op and a new wave of casks is now available widely in the UK (Averys took a whole cask for themselves). It is also possible to find at least one US retailer, the Carolina Wine Company in Raleigh, according to winesearcher.com.
They have so far released the contents of 44 casks, of which Averys (who also supply the wines for the Telegraph Wine Service) have bought at least eight. They are currently offering numbers 756 and 821 on http://www.telegraphwine.co.uk at £14.99 per half-litre.
Solera 1928 does not of course mean that much of the wine was made in 1928, but that it comes from a lot of wine that was begun then and has systematically been refreshed ever since. The wines I have come across do taste very much older than one would expect at the price, and while sweet, certainly refreshing too. The wines are a bit chewier than a typical Rutherglen Muscat from Australia, and of course don’t have the same grapiness, but are made in a very similar way.
Farr Vintners also sell a vintage (not solera) 1928 Maury at £720 a case, described here.
More about my Davos tastings on Saturday. Purple pagers can of course find out more about both 'solera' and 'rancio' from their online Oxford Companion to Wine.