Brewed in Roussillon, a stone’s throw from Aix-en-Provence, in the South of France, Rancio Sec is a one-of-a- kind of French wine you’ve probably never heard of. The list of tasting notes is intimidating: salty nuts, mushrooms, bacon, brioche, caramel, apples, and chalk. The word “umami” comes up a lot, and the finish is often described as bone dry and saline. The name Rancio Sec itself (or Vi Ranci in Catalan) translates to something like “dry and rancid,” and its reddish brown color ranges from ruddy to downright rusty.
Despite a host of marketing odds stacked against it, Rancio Sec is a drink that is definitely worth trying… if you can get your hands on it. This regional wine is very difficult to find outside of France, or, indeed, outside its département of origin.
Rancio Sec has it’s roots in Catalonia and, in France, it has been, historically, a highly regional practice that no one ever expected would get much outside interest. In fact, Rancio Sec was beginning to get phased out of production until it was declared an endangered viticultural tradition by Slow Food International in 2004. Producers began to lobby the French government for new protections, succeeding by 2012, with the designation of the Côtes Catalanes and Côte Vermeille Protected Geographical Indications.
How is Rancio Sec made?
This dry oxidative wine is aged in demijohns, or teardrop shaped bottles, which are exposed to the elements, and later stored in barrels. Wine barrels typically need to be topped off with more wine as the product ages and some of the wine evaporates. But Rancio Sec wines are not topped off, leaving the remainder of the wine to interact with oxygen in the barrel, letting the flavors intensify and alcohol levels increase. Local grape varieties like grenache blanc, grenache noir, and macabeu are used, and the wine is aged oxidatively for a minimum of five years.
Oxidative wines shouldn’t be confused with oxidized wines, which are standard wines that have turned sour due to accidental exposure to oxygen. The difference is the level of the procedure and the intention.
What makes oxidized wines so special is that they are left out to be transformed by the heat, light, and air, all of the things you would typically keep wine hidden away from. The method is thought to date back to Roman times, and is deeply rooted in Roussillon’s viticultural heritage. It’s likely that a spike in interest in Rancio Sec can be connected to the popularity of natural wines globally, which might push consumers to explore other wines that take advantage of minimal intervention in their production.
While Rancio Sec is still very difficult to find outside of France, there is one importer, Haus Alpenz, doing the heavy lifting of bringing several varieties of Rancio Sec to the United States, including wines from Domaine de Rombeau, Domaine Fontanel, and Arnaud de Villeneuve.
Rancio Sec vs. Sherry
Rancio Sec is similar to select fortified wines like Sherry and Madeira. Sherry is made exclusively in the Jerez wine region of southern Spain, and different varieties produce vastly different flavor profiles. Fino sherry is closest to Rancio Sec in terms of its dryness, but oxidative sherries like oloroso are closer to Rancio Sec’s funky umami flavor.
Madeira, which is made on the Portuguese Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa, is a fortified oxidative wine, and is sweeter and slightly stronger than Rancio Sec, with a much longer shelf life.
Rancio Sec cocktails
Even if the flavor of Rancio Sec is too strong for you to drink straight as an apéritif (in which case it pairs well with Roussillon’s beloved anchovies), be advised that the same depth of love-it-or-hate-it character is what makes it such a great player in cocktails.
Many restaurants or cafes that don’t have liquor licenses but can sell wine or beer have long used sherry as a stand-in for whiskey or gin. Two cocktails with a sherry base, both dating to the 1880s, have survived as classic cocktails: the Adonis, essentially a Manhattan with sherry subbed in for whiskey; and the Bamboo, a sherry-based martini.
Rancio Sec can be used much in the same way as sherry to replace whiskey or other spirits for a lighter drink. (In fact, you can find my recipes for a Rancio Sec Adonis and a Spicy Rancio Sec sour here.) It has a higher alcohol content than wine, clocking in at around 17%, but is still far less boozy than proper spirits, falling in the same happy medium as the now-trending swath of French and Italian apéritifs. In addition, the oxidization gives the Rancio Sec a distinct umami flavor that would lend itself well to the growing catalog of savory cocktails at popular bars. Among the more famous of these drinks is the MSG Martini at the Cantonese-American restaurant Bonnie’s in Brooklyn, which uses MSG powder, Shaoxing wine, and olive brine to create a fascinating take on a classic dirty martini. But for a twist on a twist, sub Rancio Sec in for Shaoxing wine for something truly filthy and delicious.
MSG Martini with Rancio Sec
Pinch of MSG powder
1/2 oz water
1 oz olive brine
2 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz Rancio Sec
Olives, for garnish
Instructions: Dissolve MSG powder in water. Add a dash of MSG solution to your olive brine, gin, and Rancio Sec, and stir with ice until chilled. Strain into a martini glass garnished with olives.
Catherine Rickman is a writer and professional francophile who has lived in Paris, New York, and Berlin. She is currently somewhere in Brooklyn with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other, and you can follow her adventures on Instagram @catrickman.