Vins Doux Naturels vs. Port
Not sure which side would disagree more with the title of this post. On one hand you have the Portuguese, who own the sole right to produce the style we know as Port and would suggest that it is the apex of quality fortified wines. On the other hand, you have the French who would suggest that Vins Doux Naturels are par excellence and the gold standard for fortified wine. Regardless, I think they can both find agreement in taking pride that neither belong to their Spanish neighbor. But in the context of this post that is neither here nor there.
Vins Doux Naturels is a style of fortified wine produced in France where fermentation is arrested preventing the conversion of all sugars to alcohol. The result is a wine of higher alcoholic strength with preserved sweetness whose degree of sweetness depends on the moment of fortification. Essentially this is the exact method for producing Port, but much to the chagrin of the Portuguese it is worth noting that VDNs were being produced long before the first Ports. The mutage method employed in the production of Vins Doux Naturels was patented first within the present-day French region of the Languedoc in 1299 whereas the earliest Port was said to be produced in the 17th century. Another difference is the traditional alcoholic strength of the spirit used in the fortification of both. The spirit used in the production of Port, aguardente, is lower at 77% than the 95% spirit used in the fortification of VDN, however a lesser amount of the fortifying spirit is added in the production of VDN (5-10% of the final volume) compared to Port (around 20%) so VDNs despite using a higher strength spirit for fortification are ultimately lesser in alcoholic strength as a finished wine.
What is encouraging despite which style you choose, is that both are compatible with a similar range of foods. One of the most common questions I may receive late night during service is, “We want to order the chocolate dessert on your menu. Can you recommend a wine that will work with that?” Fortunately, the answer is both yes and also affordable. A glass of Late-Bottled Vintage “LBV” Port and/or Banyuls VDN are both excellent options for the occasion. The one rule to follow when pairing wine with desserts is that the wine must be sweeter than the dessert and these two wines can stand up to that prerequisite. But don’t limit these fortified gems to dessert pairing only. Get a little adventurous in your pairing pursuits. Try it with roasted meats, poultry, cheeses, foie gras, or whatever you feel like. Both are versatile and both are an excellent medium for creativity at the dinner table.
Facts of Note
Usual suspects: Port (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cao, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca) though over 80 varieties are permitted; VDN (Muscat and Grenache)
Typical ABV: VDN (between 15-18%) Port (around 20%)
Vins Doux Naturels literally translates to “naturally sweet wines”. Not quite the truth.
Other VDNs to try: Rivesaltes, Maury, Muscat de Frontignan and Rasteau.
Other Port styles than LBV: Ruby, Tawny, Vintage, Colheita (post coming on these)