With a summer of celebrations and family gatherings ahead of us, it’s time to get some fizz in the house. But with the cost of champagne rising significantly in the last 12 months, and supply issues with some of the big houses, it could be time for a fresh alternative and I’ve got just the thing. Something new, yet very old. It’s a classic refreshing sparkling aperitif with a great history.
Blanquette de Limoux is both an appellation and a sparkling white wine. It’s produced around the village of Limoux (pronounced Li-moo) just south of the famous fortified town of Carcassonne. This lies within the region of Languedoc-Roussillon, whose many long established vineyards are finally being recognised for their quality.
Blanquette de Limoux is unique to this appellation. Amazingly, records show that Benedictine monks at the Saint Hilaire Abbey in Limoux were producing this wine as far back as the 1530s. It’s regarded as the oldest sparkling wine in the world, appearing about 150 years before champagne. It’s made in the same way as champagne (ie. secondary fermentation in the bottle) and local folklore has it that famous monk, Dom Perignon, visited Limoux and took the technique back to Champagne where he popularised it.
What’s always fascinated me about sparkling wine is the complexity of the process - it’s why I worked for a top sparkling wine producer many years ago. The abridged version of what these days is called the Traditional Method (used to be called Méthode Champenoise) goes like this: The grapes are picked early to ensure high acidity, pressed gently and the juice fermented, some seeing oak and some stainless steel. Parcels from different vineyards, varieties, oaked or unoaked are kept separate. The next, and most important step is the assemblage, where different parcels are blended to make a cuvée. This may include wines from previous vintages, referred to as reserve wines. Great skill is required to combine characteristics of the various parcels in quantities to create the desired outcome. Once the cuvée is made, it’s bottled under crown seal with the addition of the tirage liqueur, a sugar and yeast mixture which initiates a secondary fermentation and creates the famous bubbles. The bottles are then laid on their side and aged on the lees (dead yeast cells) to give complexity. Next, the bottles are riddled (remuage) – gradually tipped on end and rotated over a period of about 2 months, to move the yeast solids into the neck of the bottle. This was traditionally done by remueurs by hand, but these days it’s done by machines called gyropalettes in a much shorter time. With all the sediment in the neck, it is then plunged into a freezing brine solution, solidifying the yeast, after which the bottles are disgorged (dégorgment). Here the crown seal is removed and the pressure from the bubbles blows the frozen plug of yeast out of the bottle. A tiny amount of liquid (liqueur d’expedition) is added to the bottle, in a process known as dosage, to top it up after the loss of volume. The dosage will have varying levels of sugar depending on the desired sweetness of the finished champagne. After all that, the bottles are corked, wired, washed and dressed.
It’s an extraordinary amount of skill, time and money that goes into making sparkling wine this way. Bear in mind the cheaper stuff is not made with this method, it will have the secondary ferment carried out in tank rather than the bottle.
In 1938 Blanquette de Limoux became one of the first AOCs (appellations) established in Languedoc. It’s the home of the white grape mauzac blanc, better known simply as mauzac, however locals also refer to it as blanquette.
Traditionally Blanquette de Limoux was made entirely from mauzac, but in the 1990s, as Languedoc started to emerge as a new and innovative region, a few other varieties (including chardonnay and chenin blanc) were introduced to the appellations around Limoux. These days mauzac must make up a minimum of 90% of the blend in Blanquette de Limoux, with chardonnay and chenin blanc making up the balance.
Incidentally, since the 90s, the appellation of Limoux has also been producing some of the best chardonnay in France, outside of Burgundy… but that’s another story.
One of the region’s most highly regarded producers is Domaine J. Laurens (not to be confused with Domaine Laurens). The estate seems to pop up in most critics’ recommendations and was one of only 2 Blanquette producers recommended in an article on Limoux by international winehead Jancis Robinson MW.
The 30 hectare estate is located around the village of La Digne d'Aval, which is just a few kilometres south west of Limoux. Despite starting in the 1980s, it was not until returning local Jacques Calvel acquired the estate in 2002, that quality levels reached their full potential. In 2021 the Domaine received an HVC3 (“High Environmental Value” Certification), indicating farming practices are conducted sustainably. Level 3 is the highest level awarded to wineries that have made accommodations for the entire estate operation.
This lively wine is a blend of 90% mauzac, 5% chardonnay and 5% chenin blanc. It’s light gold in colour and is a fresh, crisp mouthful of apples and yeasty tartness. It has a fine bead (bubbles) and with 10 g/L of residual sugar, it’s at the dry end of the spectrum. It even has a ‘champagney’ toastiness and body to it, which comes as a pleasant surprise. I found it more substantial than I expected and at this price - I reckon it’s great value fizz.
No domestic reviews around, but I did find this note from Decanter:“A well-priced fizz from the south of France with a lovely lemon and brioche aroma, and zesty, pithy citrus flavours with some creaminess in the background from the lees and a saline streak on the finish. Pretty classy for the money.”
Yet to be discovered, you won't find this wine around town. So try something both fresh and classic this summer.
I can offer it for $32 a bottle.
And if you’re looking for a few other sparkly suggestions, how about…