Many years ago I pledged a troth never to write a Thanksgiving wine column unless one of two things happened: Either I thought of a really bad pun or I found a really good wine.
Merveille des merveilles, this year it’s both.
Povich-Free Appellation: The Maury Story
Maury sits at the extreme top of the Pyrénées-Orientales department, which sits at the extreme bottom of Roussillon on the French Coast. The region is as much Spanish as it is French, and as much Catalan as it is Spanish, which makes it a general cluster-bleep of contrasting cultures that somehow manages to upchuck some remarkable fluids.
Maury is a vin doux naturel—a phenomenon that, as far as wine history is concerned, originated the the south of France. It’s made by arresting the fermentation process of a given juice somewhere in the middle, when many of the natural grape sugars remain. The mechanism behind the technique was discovered in the 13th century by Arnau de Vilanova, a director of the University of Montpellier. Called mutage, it involves the addition of neutral grape spirits to the must to kill hungry yeast cells in the middle of the fermentation process.
One technique of mutage sur grain occurs before fermentation has begun, and results in vin de liqueur—essentially a grape juice cocktail. Maury is referred to as vin doux naturel because the brandy is added after the maceration period and the pressing, and although everyone’s tastes vary, to me this additional alcoholic soak time results in additional layers of complexity. Other, perhaps more celebrated mutage wines are Port and Banyuls, neither of which quite scratches the itch like Maury, although it may be difficult to find.
Mas Amiel ‘20’ Maury ($45) comes from the largest private cellar in the appellation; the story behind it is as wonderful as the wine: In 1816, a local bishop bet the property in a game of cards and promptly lost to a dude named Amiel.
Now, I would think that this sort of tale is apocryphal, primarily because they speak a lot of Spanish in Maury and, of course, mas means ‘more and miel means honey—a perfect moniker for a sweet dessert wine—but my buddy Jamie Goode assures me that the story is true, and he does his homework. Which is why he is called Goode and I am called Lazy.
Anyway, in 1999, frozen-food magnate Olivier Decelle purchased the estate, noting that other people with even deeper pockets than his had passed on it, assuming that the place needed too much work. Decelle claims (in a quote that will live on in quoteability) that the hot, rocky, nearly forbidding property found a peculiar place in his heart:
“When you are in love you are irrational. I bought it out of love.”
Rational or otherwise, Decelle developed the viticulture in the schist-soils on his 420 acres to include dry wines among the traditional vin doux naturel, actually applying for special permission from the INAO—the French organization charged with regulating French agricultural products with Protected Designations of Origin—to deviate from the Maury standard, which is sweet wine made primarily from Grenache, with allowable additions of Grenache blanc, Grenache gris, Macabeu Malvoisie du Roussillon, Syrah and Muscat.
This wine is luscious in a way that only a truly exquisitely dessert wine can be. It combines a beautiful chocolate-cherry aroma with wild notes of blackberry, sugared orange peel and sweet raisins; the savory quality are rich with roasted nuts and black pepper. The wine—though unabashedly sweet—maintains a lightness of expression that may be lost in dessert wines of similar residual sugars. It may be a natural with nearly anything you serve to finish your holiday meal, but as with most ethereal vin doux naturels, Mas Amiel Maury really requires no chaperone.
By all means, enjoy a glass as a stand-alone, and when you’re done with that one, pour Maury.