Southern sparklers

rosé bubblesMost sparkling wine is associated with relatively cool climates. The classic example in Europe would be Champagne to which we might now add England.  But even the Loire with its Cremant is quite cool and Alsace is certainly northerly when it comes to sparking wine.  It is therefore something of a surprise to find a centre of sparkling wine in the Languedoc. The reasons seem to be that the inland Limoux region in the Aude département  combines some altitude, the effect of Atlantic wind systems as well as Mediterranean ones and a moister climate due its closeness to the Pyrenees. What ever the climate, sparkling wine production has been here for a very long time. Indeed the claim is that the method of second fermentation in a bottle, which came to be known as the Champagne method, was discovered here long before Champenois got in on the act.  The first documentary evidence appeared in 1531 at the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Hilaire, with cork being sourced from the cork oak forests of Cataluña.  This would mean that this southerly area of France is responsible for two major innovations in wine making in the middle ages – bottled-fermented sparkling wine and vin doux naturels.  The challenge today is to make the reputation of the wines of the area as, well, sparkling (or indeed naturally sweet) as its history! Sparkling wine in Limoux used to mean the local Mauzac grape with its characteristic ‘old apple’ aroma and ability to mature over many months on the vine.   The traditional style, méthode ancestrale, was sweet and slightly cloudy.  The monks obviously had not solved the ‘problem’ of getting the yeast residue out of the bottle and so just lived with it. The result was wines of relatively low alcohol, slightly sweet and wouldn’t live up to the modern requirement to be dazzling bright in the glass.  Today there is a separate AC for Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale, and the wine has to be 100% Blanquette, the local name for the Mauzac grape.  However most of the wine now is either AC Blanquette de Limoux (miniimum 90% Mauzac plus Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc) or AC Crémant de Limoux made of 40-70% Chardonnay, 20-40% Chenin Blanc, 10-20% Mauzac and 0-10% Pinot Noir.  The first two varieties cannot be more than 90% of the blend.  This all sounds a bit complicated but basically:

  • Méthode Ancestrale is sweet sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape, aged for a minimum of 9 months in the bottle
  • Blanquette de Limoux is a dry sparkling wine made mainly from Mauzac with a bit of help from Chardonnay and Chenin, aged for minimum of 9 months in the bottle
  • Crémant de Limoux is a dry sparkling wine made mainly from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, aged for a minimum of 12 months in the bottle
  • All three are made by the method which should be known as méthode limousin, ie second fermentation in the bottle like Champagne, which is now known as the classic method, perhaps with a nod to the monks of Sainte-Hilaire.

Domaine du Fourn, Robert

IMG_8751Entrance to RobertThis family firm has 40 hectares close to Pieusse, a village a few kilometres north of the town of Limoux.  It is not grand, anything but, however it has the feel of a company which has been at its business for many decades.  What matters is the final product in the bottle, 250,000 of them, all the rest is a means to an end.  Melanie shows us around, following the story of production from bringing the grapes, making a still mainly white wine, bottling the méthode ancestrale before it ferments out, starting a second fermentation in the bottles of Blanquette and Crémant, leaving them for their period of rest, getting the dead yeast into the neck of the bottle either on the traditional pupitres (a ‘pulpit’ for gradually inverting a bottle and rotating it) or using the gyropalate machine, disgorging the bottles have frozen the necks to a temperature of -23° C, topping them up and then bottling and labelling.


And what about the finished wines?
AC Blanquette de Limoux Brut, Carte Ivoire, non-vintage but in fact 2009, 90% Mauzac and 10% Chenin, with 12g per litre of residual sugar. A fairly neutral if pleasant bouquet, then aniseed and moderate apple/pear on the palate.  Rounded and easy to drink given that level of residual sugar.
AC Blanquette de Limoux Brut, Carte Noir 2008, in addition to a selection of the best Mauzac, this has 5% each of Chenin and Chardonnay.  The extra year has also given it greater richness, more complexity, and some nutty notes.
Two general points to make here: first I did not make notes about the level of mousse – these wines are lively enough without being either exceptionally fine or lively.  Second, these wines are somewhat of a piece – good bubbles, some yeasty notes, medium level of fruit, decent acidity, medium bodied. They do not show the same extremes as Champagne. For example, as the minimum maturing is one year, you don’t get the advanced yeastiness and complexity of top quality Champagne, nor are most of them made for ageing – nor do they cost anything like top Champagne.
AC Blanquette de Limoux Brut, Dame Robert 2002, same blend as Carte Noire, disgorged 2011. OK having just written these wines are not intended for ageing, here is the exception. But what is noticeable about it is not its age but its freshness, it just not taste like a nearly 10 year wine. In the glass the aromas develop with ‘apple and hawthorne’ being one suggestion.  There is a good roundedness on the palate.
AC Crémant de Limoux 2004, Robert’s version is 60% Mauzac, plus 20% each of Chenin and Chardonnay, so we are not that far from a Blanquette style.  Here you start with the ripe fruit of the Chenin and Chardonnay and finish with the ‘old apples’ of the Mauzac.  Good fruit character, well balanced, would be enjoyed by many who find Champagne too acidic and dry.
AC Crémant de Limoux Rosé 2007, is in fact mainly Chardonnay, 50% to be exact, then 30% Chenin, just 10% Pinot Noir for the colour and 10% Mauzac.  Attractive strawberry, raspberry and apple on the nose and palate, good balance again, ripe  with some structure.  Good aperitif or with white meat or fish dishes.

Blanquette de Limoux, Méthode Ancestrale Doux, now here is something a bit different!  It has to be all Mauzac and has 80g residual sugar.  Nowadays it is not as simple as ‘let’s bottle this half way through the  process and let nature take its course’. Rather, when you have the right level of sugar you stop the first phase of fermentation under pressure and a low temperature to enable you to bottle the wine.  The wine is then left for three months before you filter, disgorge and re-bottle it.  The final product is low in alcohol, rich and sweet, which really brings out the classic old apple taste.

Robert roséMelanieIMG_8720

Launching Domaine Grier’s Brut

Further south in Roussillon, there is no real tradition of sparkling wine. However, that does not stop a few enterprising souls having a go, especially if they have a successful track record elsewhere.  Domaine Grier in St Paul de Fenouillèdes have just launched their sparkling wine, the most southerly sparking wine in France.  (Mind you, just across the border in Spain, you quickly get into Cava country where bottle-fermented sparkling wine is produced on an industrial scale.)  Domaine Grier can draw on the experience of its parent company, Villiera in South Africa, which produces the very fine Monro which I comment on further below. IMG_8504One the highlights of our week in Roussillon was the launch of Domaine Grier’s new sparkling wine.  The domaine organised a great party for the occasion.  I have been to a number of wine launches but this added the experience of a launch on a luxury privately-hired train travelling through the vineyards where the grapes were grown. The arrangement was that we had to assemble at Rivesaltes station from whence we would be transported on the posh version of the train touristique which runs up the Agly valley in summer, giving you fantastic viewing points of the unfolding landscape and vinescape.   Needless to say a certain amount of sparkling wine was consumed on route.  We then had a splendid al fresco lunch at the winery, conveniently situation a three minute walk from the station, accompanied by Grier’s still wines.  On the train journey back (and between the heavy showers) we stopped off to have a tour of the vineyards from the vantage point of the back of an open-topped lorry, less luxurious if lots of fun.  All in all, this was a memorable day and we wish the domaine well with its new wine. Domaine Grier Brut NV, €11.99, is a blend of 50% Macabeu, 25% Carignan noir and 25% Chardonnay. (Or rather that is the aim.  In this first release, the percentages are in fact 38, 12 and 50.) Given these grape varieties this is a wine which pretty much makes a statement about Roussillon.  Macabeu and Carignan are completely at home here.  Macabeu has the natural high acidity which you need in a sparkling wine and is one of the usual varieties in Cava. It is unusual to make white wine from Carignan noir, but in effect it is playing the the same role as Pinot Noir does in Champagne.  In this case it also gives a hint of apricot colour to the wine. The wine is a made by the méthode traditionnelle, ie second fermentation in the bottle, with a minimum of 15 months on the lees and a further 8 months upside down on the  cork.  The still wine is made in situ, the second fermentation is carried out by Boisset in Burgundy.  In this first release, Grier Brut is a pleasant, well made aperitif or accompaniment to first courses.  There is almost a strawberry note on the nose, quite a full palate, with the Chardonnay giving some structure and weight. On the train we were treated to Monro 2006, Villiera, Stellenbosch.  ‘Monro’ is a simply the family middle name – so this family now has thousands of offspring, all of them impressive achievers!  Also made by the classical method, the varieties here are 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  However, this is a vintage wine which has had a full 4½ years sur lattes, ie bottles lade on top of each other with the wine interacting with the lees.  The resulting wine has a refined yeastiness, rich in the mouth and with a superb softness, moderate to good persistence.   The quality of Monro is a positive sign for the future of Grier Brut. In conclusion, it is quite counter-intuitive to find good sparkling wine as far south as Roussillon and the southern Languedoc. But Limoux has an important part in the history of bottle-fermented bubbles and is now a good source for quality at a reasonable price. Modern winemaking and local varieties – with a bit of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir by contrast – today make this area a source for really worthwhile bottles which can withstand the pressure. Return to Roussillon home page

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2 Responses to “Southern sparklers”

  • winefriend:

    We are having the Crémant too and can tell how it went after Saturday!

  • Tahira:

    We can’t thank the Gumns enough for introducing us to these marvellous wines and each one seemed to get better..! In choosing for our daughter’s wedding we decided on the Crémant de Limoux and the Bride has ordered two bottles of Methode Ancestrale for herself as she prefers a sweeter wine – very pretty bottle too! The prices are incredibly reasonable and Paul is most kindly delivering them all the way back home! How lucky are we!! Bonne santé!

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