Christmas (Wine) in the Roussillon

Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC—an appellation dedicated to vin doux naturel (sweet, fortified wines) based on white Muscat grapes—is also known for a wine dedicated to Christmas: Muscat de Noël.

The Muscat de Noël of Rivesaltes—produced using Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and/or Muscat of Alexandria grapes—is allowed to be released on the third Thursday of November (and required to be estate bottled before December 1) of the year of the harvest, making it something of a nouveau wine (but let’s not say that in Beaujolais).

Muscat-based wines have been produced in the area for thousands of years and are well-documented throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The tradition of Muscat de Noël can be traced back to time when the Roussillon was part of the Principality of Catalonia and ruled by the Crown of Aragon (and later by the Monarchy of Spain). The luscious, sweet, wines were sent to the rulers of the area—known as Comte de Barcelona (Counts of Barcelona)—to be served throughout the 12 days of Christmas—from Christmas Day through the Feast of the Epiphany (traditionally January 6). The light, sweet, and fruity flavors of Muscat de Noël provide an excellent accompaniment to Christmas feasts and celebratory foods of all kinds—from rich roasts to sharp cheeses and sweets.

Map via the INAO

Here are a few fast facts about Muscat de Rivesaltes and Muscat de Noël—perfect for wine students nerdy enough to be studying on Christmas Day (myself included):

  • All versions of Muscat de Rivesaltes must contain a minimum of 15% abv and 10% residual sugar.
  • The Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC is by far the largest sweet-wine appellation in France in terms of total geographic size.
  • The area within the Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC covers the entirety of the Rivesaltes AOC as well as the Banyuls AOC (both approved for vin doux naturel only) and occupies the exact same area as the Grand Roussillon AOC (see the accompanying map).
  • The Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC/Grand Roussillon AOC extends across the entire eastern third of the Pyrénées-Orientales Départment and a small portion of the Aude (to the north). Dominated by limestone-based scrubland, the region stretches for over 50 miles/82 km along the Mediterranean Coast from L’étang de La Palme (the La Palme Lagoon) to the border with Spain.
  • In addition to the Rivesaltes AOC and the Banyuls AOC, the area within the Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC/Grand Roussillon AOC also encompasses the entirety of the Fitou, Maury, and Collioure AOCs.
  • The town of Rivesaltes is named for a Catalan term meaning high banks. The topography of the area—consisting of hills and terraces alongside several significant rivers, ponds, and lagoons—easily lives up to the name.
  • Sweet, Muscat-based wines produced in the Roussillon were acknowledged—as far back as 1936—with some of the first AOCs of France. Five separate appellations—Muscat de Banyuls, Muscat de Maury, Muscat des Côtes d’Agly, Muscat des Côtes du Haut-Roussillon, and Muscat de Rivesaltes—were originally approved. However, in 1956, all five were consolidated under one single designation:  the Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC. Muscat de Noël was added in 1997.
  • Muscat de Noël is produced in tiny amounts—it may represent as little as 5% of the total production of the Muscat de Rivesaltes AOC.
  • The Roussillon was ceded to France in 1635 with the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees/Traité des Pyrénées that ended the Franco-Spanish War of that year. Traces of Catalan culture are still apparent in the area (including the name of one of the most important IGPs of the region, the Côtes Catalanes.)

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Not to be forgotten—Christmas (wine) in the Languedoc: The Languedoc also gets in the Christmas wine spirit, with two appellations—Muscat de Lunel AOC and Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois AOC—also known for Muscat de Noël. Just like their cheery counterparts in the Roussillon, these wines are bottled by December 1 of the year of the harvest and meant to be enjoyed as a sweet, fruity complement to the holiday season.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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