Rivesaltes is a complicated wine to explain even for those who produce it, so let’s skip to the bottom line: It is a sweet wine with a lean structure, it's served chilled, it has more alcohol than most table wines but less than some other fortified wines, and it can be delicious sipped by itself or with a variety of foods. It tastes somewhat like an aged tawny port.
I recently tasted 10 vintage Rivesaltes dating back to 1931, all produced by Maison Cazes (not to be confused with the Cazes family of Bordeaux fame) at a luncheon at The Modern in New York City. All were quite good, and all are available in the U.S. in limited quantities at relatively reasonable prices.
Rivesaltes is pronounced "reeve-salt," and it sounds more authentic if you say it quickly and nasally as do the southern French, in its birthplace in the Roussillon, near where the Mediterranean meets the Pyrénées. But a word about that "French" location. Dashing young Lionel Lavail, who took over management at Cazes in 2004, gets one thing straight immediately about the Rivesaltes region, sprawling out around the village of the same name. "We are not French, we are not Spanish, we are Catalan," he says defiantly. If the region of Catalonia, around Barcelona, becomes semi-independent of Spain, expect the Rivesaltes portion of Roussillon to jump borders quicker than Gérard Depardieu can ride his scooter into Moscow.
Rivesaltes — like the similar sweet, fortified wines of neighboring Banyuls — can be made from a variety of grapes, but the many shades of grenache are the primary ones as Cazes. As with port, alcohol is added during fermentation to keep the wine sweet while stabilizing it. According to the grapes used, the resulting wine can be colored from light palomino to dark amber. The wines are deliberately oxidized via exposure to air and/or heat, and aged in barrels. "We found several old barrels in our cellars," Lavail says, "and we decided to bottle and sell them." The vintages we tasted were 1999, 1995 (the least expensive at $30 per 750 milliliters), 1962, 1960, 1954, 1949, 1945, 1943, 1933, and 1931 (the most expensive at $475).
All tasted similar, although with varying degrees of caramel, nuts, sorghum molasses, taffy, chocolate, browned butter, baking spices, tobacco, and rancio (look it up). Some had touches of volatile acidity with balsamic notes. All were refreshing — not fresh — because of the light chill at which they were served, their high alcohol, and their great structure. The Modern menu accompanying the wines included foie gras, duck breast, Roquefort with black truffles, and apple strudel with mascarpone and chestnut confit, all to mix and match with the various Rivesaltes.