Muscat de Rivesaltes, whose appellation was initially recognised by decree on 29 August 1956, is a powerful and intense sweet natural wine. Its colour evolves from pale gold when it is still young to amber tones as it ages. The Muscat of the year is called Muscat de Noël and is sold from the third Thursday in November until the end of January.
The harvesting of the grapes, the vinification, the elaboration, the maturing and the packaging of this natural sweet wine are carried out in the departments of the Aude and the Pyrénées Orientales.
The geographical area is situated in a vast amphitheatre open to the east towards the Mediterranean Sea and bounded by a series of high reliefs:
- To the west, the Canigou massif and its peak at an altitude of 2780 metres,
- To the south, the Albères massif and its Roc de France at an altitude of 1450 metres,
- To the north, the Corbières massif and its Mount Tauch at an altitude of 878 metres.
The geographical area of Muscat de Rivesaltes extends over the territory of 89 communes in the Pyrénées Orientales and 9 communes in the Aude. The landscape is shaped by erosion, modelled by successive deposits resulting from marine intrusions.
The soils are very varied and are characterised by being thin, very dry, poor in organic matter, always very stony and well drained. The plots where Muscat de Rivesaltes grows are made up of terraces of rolled pebbles, composed of clay and limestone, as well as the degradation of shale and sand.
The Muscat de Rivesaltes vineyard benefits from more than 2500 hours of sunshine per year. Rainfall is uneven, alternating between dry and stormy periods in spring and autumn. It is between 500 and 600 millimetres.
As with the whole region, the Tramontane reigns and beats the countryside more than one day in three. This often violent north-west wind is particularly cold in winter because of its passage over the snow-covered peaks of the Pyrenees.
However, the nearby sea moderates the climate, bringing mildness in winter and coolness in summer.
The history of of sweet wine
Allusions to the production of sweet wine in the Narbonne region can already be found in the writings of Pliny the Elder in 79 BC. However, it is only in the 13th century that we find evidence of the production of natural sweet wines by “mutage du vin par son esprit” (muting of wine by its spirit) thanks to the testimony of Arnau de Vilanova (1238 – 1311), who initiated the use of eau de vie to stop the fermentation of wine.
Muscat is already mentioned in the archives of the 14th century. Pierre IV le Cérémonieux, King of Aragon and Count of Roussillon from 1336 to 1387, used to order large quantities. His son Jean I, who succeeded him from 1387 to 1396, continued the tradition by having Muscat shipped by land and sea to his palace in Valencia.
In the 19th century, production benefited from special legislation aimed at preserving its originality. In 1872, the Arago law recognised the existence of this wine whose alcoholic strength by volume must be between 15 and 18%
In 1898, the Pams law reserved the use of the traditional term “vin doux naturel” to wines which “will have the possibility of being maintained under the regime of wines, in return for payment of a half-duty for the consumption of the alcohol used in the mutage”.
Finally, the Brousse law of 15 July 1914 specifies the grape varieties entitled to produce natural sweet wine. The first decrees recognising the appellation d’origine contrôlée for natural sweet wines were promulgated on 6 August 1936.
At that time, all the recognised appellations d’origine contrôlée had to be supplemented by the word “Muscat”. This is why Muscat de Banyuls, Muscat du Haut Roussillon, Muscat de Maury, Muscat des Côtes d’Agly or Muscat de Rivesaltes were traded at the time.
In 1953, the wine merchants requested that these names be grouped together under the single appellation “Muscat de Rivesaltes”, Rivesaltes being the seat of the majority of the wineries and merchants. A decree ratified their request on 29 August 1956.
Since then, the production of Muscat de Rivesaltes has progressively refocused on the maritime sector of the Aude region around Leucate and in the Pyrénées Orientales department, on the Crest, a large plateau of rolled pebbles emerging between Rivesaltes and Salses, on the terraces of the Agly valley.
In 2009, the vineyard covers an area of 5000 hectares for an average production of 130,000 hectolitres, i.e. two thirds of the total production of the appellations d’origine contrôlées bearing the indication “Muscat” in France.
The tradition of consuming the “Muscat of the year” in the family on the occasion of the Nativity has been perpetuated around Rivesaltes. It was consecrated in 1999 by the recognition of the mention “Muscat de Noël” for wines packaged and marketed to the consumer from the third Thursday of November of the year of the harvest. In 2009, this production represents about 3000 hectolitres produced by about a hundred producers.
The making of Muscat de Rivesaltes
The choice of grapes
The wines called Muscat de Rivesaltes are made from the grape varieties muscat à petits grains B and muscat d’Alexandrie, a later variety. The maximum average load on the plot may not exceed 6000 kilograms per hectare.
The grapes are harvested at good maturity on dates set by the rural code according to three geographical areas. The musts must have a minimum natural sugar content of 252 grams per litre, with a maximum yield of 40 hectolitres of must per hectare.
The appellation is reserved only for wines from well-defined parcels:
- Plots of young vines from the third year following that in which the planting was carried out in situ before 31 July,
- Plots of young vines from the second year following the year in which the grafting was carried out in situ before 31 July,
- Plots of vines that have been grafted at the earliest in the first year following the year in which the grafting was carried out before 31 July, and as soon as the plots of vines no longer contain any grape varieties other than those authorised for the appellation. By way of derogation, in the year following that in which the grafting was carried out before 31 July, the grape varieties accepted for the appellation may only represent 80% of the vine stock of each parcel in question.
Processing, manufacturing, breeding, packaging and storage
The wines are obtained by mutage of the must during fermentation. It is carried out by adding neutral wine alcohol of at least 96% vol. within the limit, evaluated in pure alcohol, of a minimum of 5% and a maximum of 10% of the volume of the must harvest.
Additional mutage may be carried out up to a total of 10% pure alcohol, before the declaration of claim.
All enrichment operations are prohibited, as well as the use of spiral screw presses. All operators must have a vinification vat capacity at least equivalent to the volume vinified from the previous harvest, given the same surface area.
The winery must be equipped with sufficient means to control the temperature of the wine-making containers.
Labelling of Muscat de Rivesaltes bottles
Wines claiming the controlled appellation Muscat de Rivesaltes must bear the words “vin doux naturel”.
Wines labelled “Muscat de Noël” must bear the indication of the vintage.
The characteristics of Muscat de Rivesaltes.
Young wines are usually pale gold in colour and often have aromas of white fruit, fresh citrus, exotic fruit, mint, dried fruit or rose.
Preserved in the bottle, with time, the colour takes on amber reflections and the aromas evolve towards notes of honey, fruit and candied citru.
The combination of a dry, very ventilated and hot climate and poor, naturally drained soils has allowed the planting of grape varieties that are demanding in terms of health, temperature and sunshine, such as the Muscat à petits grains B and above all the Muscat d’Alexandrie, which has its only French base in the geographical area.
This favours the production of grapes with a high sugar content and rich terpene aromatic potential.
Fine and fresh, Muscat à petits grains B brings rich aromas reminiscent of exotic fruits, mint and lemon. Powerful and intense, the Muscat d’Alexandrie variety gives fullness to the wines and brings aromas reminiscent of ripe fruit, sultanas and rose.
The aromatic and syrupy characteristics that have made Muscat de Rivesaltes famous are revealed by the producer’s know-how and his mastery of the mutage process.
In order to preserve the aromatic potential of the wines, they are packaged in the defined geographical area and in the immediate vicinity in suitable containers. The aim of the producers is to guarantee and safeguard the quality and specificity of the products and consequently the reputation of the appellation d’origine contrôlée.