I spent a day exploring Muscat de Frontignan and Muscat de Mireval, which are two of the key appellations for Muscat Vin Doux Naturel in the Languedoc. The other two are Muscat de Lunel and Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois. Andthere is of course Muscat de Rivesaltes in Roussillon. I was with my tasting buddy, Lits, which is always good for comparing notes, and it has to be said that our impressions were mixed. We went to four different producers.
Château de Stony, outside Frontignan just north of the village of la Peyrade, is an old established estate and has been producing wine for five generations. Their Muscats are delicious, not only the fortified wines, but also their late harvest wine, Lumière d’Automne. But things are obviously tough. Muscat is a much less popular drink that it was. Drink driving laws have become much more severe in France and most Muscat is drunk as an aperitif, so that is what people give up most easily, rather than wine with the meal. So at Château de Stony they have planted red varieties and are diversifying into red wine. It is a brave move; I am not sure how suitable the coastal vineyards are for red wine, when you consider all the wonderful wild hills of the hinterland. I also liked their Muscat Sec, Cuvée Amelièr, which is an almond tree in Occitan. Lydie Nodat explained that putting Muscat on the front label can put people off; Muscat is a flavour that people have strong views about, so they will immediately say that they don’t like it, without even trying it.
That turned out to be quite a short visit, so we thought we might pop into the Frontignan coop. We were lucky; it does not close at lunch time during July and August and the two lively ladies, Valerie and Nathalie, who were running the shop, were very happy to give us a tasting of the coop’s entire range of wines. The coop represents about 80% of the appellation and the wines are well made and very representative of the appellation. And the surprise was two delicious Muscats that had been aged in barrel, a 12 ans d’age, and a 20 ans d’age. The first came from wines that were a minimum of 12 years old, and the second was made from wines that were all 20 years old. It was rich and nutty, not unlike a liquid sherry trifle, with some honey and spice and a touch of caramel and a long finish. The shop is very welcoming; I was amused by a notice that prescribed minimum dress – they do not want you coming in straight off the beach – and another noticed offered spittoon facilities if you wanted to taste. And you can buy Muscat based sweets, pâtes de Muscat de Frontignan and bonbons au Marc de Muscat, as well as jars of local honey and other goodies.
And then we went on to Domaine de la Rencontre which is a new estate in Muscat de Mireval, just outside the village of Mireval. Julie and Pierre Viudes made their first wine in 2010 and are highly motivated and very keen to put their wines on the map and raise the quality bar. More on them anon. The coop was the surprise of the day; but they were undoubtedly the highlight.
Last visit of the day was to Mas Rouge, a large property in the bois des Aresquiers and close to the sea and the étangs. The Chemiral family bought it as a very rundown property in 1997 and have extensively restored it. The old cellar is a magnificent space with pristine stainless steel and concrete tanks, as well as barrels and a couple of old carts for decoration. Julien Chemiral gave us a comprehensive tasting. He too has diversified, making white, red and rosé wines, as well as both Muscat de Mireval and Muscat de Frontignan. It was interesting to compare the two side by side; both wines are vinified in exactly the same way, with the same amount of residual sugar, but there was a difference in taste. The wine from Mireval seemed lighter and more elegant, with some lemony notes, while the Frontignan was richer and more concentrated. However, you sense that wine is not necessarily the main focus of the estate, as it also provides an attractive venue for weddings and other functions. It does seem difficult to make a living from Muscat alone.