Most 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:
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.
One 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.
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