Before Champagne, before Cava, before Prosecco, there was sparkling wine in Limoux, France. Way back in the early 16th century, the monks at the abbey of St. Hilaire were producing a semi-sweet sparkling wine from blanquette, the Occitan word for the white Mauzac grapes of the region. The first bottles were most likely produced by accident. Indeed, even well into the 18th century, the bubbles created by secondary fermentation were considered a flaw in wines in most regions; the pressure built up when yeast trapped in the bottle digested fermentable sugars and produced carbon dioxide didn't just make the wine bubbly, they caused bottles to literally explode.
Even Dom Pérignon himself worked tirelessly to codify methods to prevent secondary fermentation from happening; Ironically, Moët & Chandon would then go on to name their most famous Champagne after him.
The earliest sparkling wines produced in Limoux were a semi-sweet, low-alcohol wine similar in flavor and texture to a sparkling cider. Slightly sweet, fizzy, and easy to drink. It's still produced under the Appellation Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale, though the vast majority of sparkling wine production in the region today is in drier, Champagne-style Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux. The main difference in the styles is in their secondary fermentation.
Wine destined to become Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale is bottled with plenty of residual sugar and allowed to undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle. The spent yeast remains in the bottle (there's no disgorgement), giving the final wines a cloudier appearance with visible yeast sediment. Regular Blanquette or Crémant, on the other hand, is made by bottling the wine along with extra yeast and a small amount of added sugar, known as liqueur de tirage. It's this sugar that gets digested by the yeast, creating a wine that is bubbly and dry. The spent yeast is disgorged from the bottle, then the wine is topped up (with the addition of a touch of sugar), and the cork is secured.
I got to see the inner workings of a couple of sparkling wine factories on a recent trip through the region with the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc. I love watching factories in action, and winemaking facilities are of special interest to me. I find the combination of historic winemaking practices coupled with modern science and engineering to be utterly fascinating. Giant fingered robots lifting dozens of bottles at a time. Spectrometers analyzing fermentation by-products. Assembly lines for labeling and packing bottles.
These days, there are three Appellations of sparkling wine produced in Limoux. Blanquette de Limoux, which must be made of 90% Mauzac, Blanquette méthode ancestrale, and Crémant de Limoux made with 40-70% Chardonnay, 20-40% Chenin Blanc, 10-20% Mauzac, and up to 10% Pinot Noir.
Limoux Sparkling Wines to Seek Out
Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux, Brut 2010: Dry as a bone with bright lemony acidity and a hint of melons and apples, it has a great yeasty, bread-like aroma and creamy texture with small bubbles. I don't know many $10 sparkling wines with this kind of appeal.
Sieur d'Arques Première Bulle Brut 2010: It's not yet available in the States, but is poised to enter the market for the holiday season, when I guarantee you my wife and her friends will be drinking plenty of it. Don't let the shiny pink label and clearly targeted marketing fool you, this $16 bottle is a serious sparkler with delicate bubbles and aromas of elderflower and honeysuckle. It's smooth and buttery on the palate and offers toasty nut flavors on the finish.
Antech Crémant de Limoux Cuvée Emotion 2010: A pretty pink sparkling rosé with fresh berry aromas, a dry finish, and very lively bubbles. At $15, I'd be equally comfortable serving this with a foie terrine at a fancy dinner party, or alongside a light stir-fry or Thai cuisine.
Antech Crémant de Limoux Grande Cuvée Brut 2010: A superb value at $16, this dry, elegant sparkler shows aromas of grapefruit and toasted bread with a long, dry finish and very small, creamy bubbles. This is a great, inexpensive bottle for celebrating with.
Delmas 2009 Blanquette de Limoux, Cuvée Mémoire: A 90% mauzac, 10% chardonnay blend aged in oak, it shows deliciously herbal flavors not common amongst sparkling wines and a very light acidity.