Tucked away in France's most south-westerly tip, just a cork's pop from Spain, hides what is probably the wine world's best-kept secret. The sumptuously rich red dessert wines of Banyuls-sur-Mer, from the coastal Catalan region of Roussillon, are just the sort of tipple we Brits should have embraced years ago, but, since we took the ubiquitous Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and New World stickies to our hearts, we seem to have lost the will to experiment further.
You can find a few examples of the wines through UK importers, but the best introduction comes with a trip to the town's annual October Fête des Vendanges. Visitors stroll the streets with the traditional Banyuls glasses strung around their necks, holding them out above the crush as back street bars dispense the results of the new harvest. "Blanc? Blanc?" shout the barmen. "Non, non! Rouge!" comes the cry from the crowd.
Bands march the streets, as the small beach fills with revellers gorging on vendors' regional offerings. The lucky few get to sit at the makeshift vignerons' tables, feasting on industrial pans of paella cooked over driftwood on the shoreline. Everyone waits for the 3pm arrival of the old Catalan fishing boats, decked out in their distinctive red and yellow paint jobs, carrying barrels of the new season's grapes to be delivered to the shore to the accompaniment of bands playing everything from French trad jazz to Hendrix.
There are 50 wine growers in this region of Roussillon, producing Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Crus and the less-potent Coliourres on 2,100 hectares of vines – 1,400 of Banyuls and and the balance for Coliourres. Annual production runs at 45,000 hectolitres for Banyuls and 18,000 hectolitres for Coliourres.
Local legend tells of the wine being popularised by a religious winemaker who decided it was easier to raise funds by selling his wine than waiting for money to be put in his collection plate.
Given local geography, it's a tough wine to produce, so the Grenache vines have to be amongst the world's hardiest and, since Grenache is a bush, Banyuls and Coliourres have none of the neat trellised vineyards typical of France.
The region's soil – what there is of it – is terrible, so most of the wines grow out of what is almost solid rock, known locally as schist. Add to this there are only about 30 days of rain a year and extremely high winds, and the wines' scarcity suddenly makes sense.
Banyuls is a wine which must be at least 16 per cent proof to meet the conditions of its AOC, but is permitted to rise as high as 23 per cent. Pure wine alcohol is used to stop the fermentation, whereas other manufacturers of vin doux prefer to use brandy wine alcohol. Traditionally, Banyuls wines should taste of baked peaches and apricots with a slight cassis aftertaste. More than any other area of France, Banyuls is made up of ultra-small growers, typified by vignerons such as 36-year-old Laetitia Pietri, a fifth-generation owner, whose 13.5 hectares of vines produce up to 500 hectolitres of wines per year, including the delicate reds, whites and rosés of Coliourres and almost-syrupy Muscat de Rivesaltes.
But it is to see her Banyuls ageing which puts it all in perspective. The red wines mature in 20-litre glass flagons, stacked on shelves on her matchbox-sized balcony high above Coliourre's winding alleys.
Californian-born Vladimir Algin, director of export sales for the area's Abbe Arrous co-op, says: "The growers here are farmers and there has never been an aggressive push to get their wines out there. The people here are very practical, but not very commercial.
"If we could place one just one Banyuls wine into one UK high street chain, it would change everything. Our problem is, the buyers have no assurance it will shift once it's on their shelves. As for local promotion, how do we get anyone down to a little corner of France none of the major chains' buyers has ever heard of?
"Our UK sales demographics are bizarre. We can sell quite a bit of Banyuls north of Birmingham, right up to Scotland. Northerners are not quite so buttoned-up as their southern counterparts. The south is also something of a "claretocracy" – they are obsessed with big names."
"This is rubbish," declares Lance Foyster, of Clark Foyster Wines, UK importers of Coume del Mas's exquisite Quintessence Banyuls, which retails at £23 for a 50cl bottle. He brings in some 2,000 bottles annually from the region, of which about one-third consists of the sweet red nectar.
"My market is primarily based in and around London where people are more open to new tastes and styles of wine. High-end Michelin-starred restaurants are an important part of my market. But Banyuls remains a well-kept secret, because we have so many historic connections with port, sherry and Madeira, which have covered our requirements for fortified wines."
David Hemsley, manager of The Secret Cellar, a one-off retailer of more eclectic wines in Tunbridge Wells, sells some 120-140 bottles of Banyuls a year.
"When we do sell it, it tends to go out by the case-load, because devotees can't find it anywhere else," he says. "When we first brought it in, we thought it was a lovely wine, but we never expected the response we had. The problem is similar to that we had with high-quality French table wines. Everyone wants big, recognisable names like Chardonnay and Châteauneuf, but won't experiment with wines they don't know."
Abbe Arrous, email@example.com; The Secret Cellar, 01892 537981 firstname.lastname@example.org; Clark Foyster Wines Ltd 020 8567 3731, email@example.com; Fields, Morris & Verdin 020 7921-5300, www.fmvwines.comReuse content