Birthplace of Bubbly

P1090410Where did champagne come from? Not from Champagne or Dom Pérignon! The first sparkling wine can be traced to the 1500s in the area around Limoux, just south of Carcassonne. It was first mentioned in a document from 1544 (the town of Limoux was ordering some!), but it was in 1531 that monks from the nearby Saint-Hilaire abbey figured out how to make sparkling wine on purpose–previously it had just been by accident and not considered a good thing, either. Dom Pérignon wasn’t even born until 1638, nearly 100 years later.

My friends who recently visited are fans of champagne, and I just had to give them a tasting of blanquette de Limoux–in fact, it was the first stop on their first full day here. We went to Sieur d’Arques in Limoux, the biggest house and sponsor of the Toques et Clochers fundraising festival I wrote about here. Sieur d’Arques was a real person, the lord of the region in the 1500s. IMG_2147We tasted the range of Premiere Bulle wines–named for being the “first bubble”–sticking to the brut, or dry, offerings rather than the sweeter ones. The traditional blanquette brut has three kinds of grapes: at least 90% Mauzac, plus Chardonnay and/or Chenin blanc. The grapes are pressed and fermented separately before being mixed and bottled. The magic is in the mix–only those grapes are allowed, and the winemaker can choose whether to add 10% Chardonnay or 10% Chenin blanc to the Mauzac, or a little of each, in some ratio that adds up to 10%. A second fermentation happens in the bottles, over nine to 18 months.

The bottles are stored on their sides until it’s time to put them into riddling racks, almost upside-down, so the sediments move to the neck of the bottles. They are turned–rémuage–then the sediment is disgorged and the bottles are topped up.IMG_2146The méthode ancestrale uses 100% Mauzac grapes. The first fermentation is in vats, then the wine is bottled at the waning moon in March for a second fermentation of only two months, to reach only 6 degrees of alcohol. I’m not a fan of ancestrale, because I find it too sweet.

Then there’s crémant, which is made from a majority of Chardonnay, mixed with another grape–Chenin, Mauzac or Pinot noir (which produces rosé). Crémant has to age for at least 12 months, and Sieur d’Arques ages its crémants for 18-30 months.

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Love the sconces.

Sieur d’Arques isn’t the only maker of blanquette de Limoux. Other large producers include Antech, Aguila, Guinot and Anne de Joyeuse. Here’s a complete list.

Blanquette de Limoux is considerably less expensive than champagne, which, coming from near Paris, became fashionable among the royal court in the 1600s and has enjoyed superior public relations ever since. In the 1600s it would have been a very long, rough journey from Limoux to Paris. Consider this your insider tip for the good stuff whose price hasn’t been jacked up by branding.IMG_2226We did have some champagne, as well, from Chanoine Frères, which is the second-oldest champagne house. It was so fancy it came with a little jacket to keep it cool. It was good, but the blanquette was just as delicious.

Have you had blanquette de Limoux or crémant de Limoux? Or are you sticking with champagne?

 

Wine Harvest

P1080694Today may be Sept. 1, but Monday is la rentrée–the great return to school, to work, to routine. For winemakers around this part of the south of France, the end of summer comes with le vendange, or grape harvest, and they are hard at it.P1080487At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. P1080474Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.

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This photo and the one just above were taken a while ago; these are all dark purple now.

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.

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Can you spot the lonely vigneron tending the wires? Obviously from earlier this year.

Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.

P1080704Let me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).

P1080705If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.

Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.

And so when things go badly, we see the long faces.

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Hit by frost.

Our winters are mild, and temperatures only occasionally drop below freezing at night. But this spring, frost struck low-lying areas a few times as late as April, devastating the vines just as the fruit was budding out.

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Big gaps.

A large field where some optimistic winegrower had planted new vines early in the spring turned into rows of shriveled dreams. Some plots that belonged to the ancient vigneron, who died about a year ago, were hit and tumbled into abandon. I suppose his son, no spring chicken himself, gave up on them.P1080476

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Lost cause.

Another plot nearby was completely dead and eventually torn up and plowed over. I met a worker pulling out the stakes that had held the wires for training the vines, and he said they would plant again later. Maybe.P1070939The piles of souches, or stumps,  look like heaps of bones, a cemetery of hope.P1080473The harvest this year is two weeks early because of the hot summer, but the output is expected to be 30% to 40% lower than last year. The wine is expected to be of excellent quality, however. So keep an eye out for Minervois 2017 (though in the meantime you would do well with 2016 and 2015 and 2014….)P1070946