A friend popped over with a some freshly shucked oysters last week and I had just the tipple to match them with. These crisp French sparklers will definitely come in handy for a summer of friends, family and celebration.
The village of Limoux (pronounced Li-moo) lies just south of the famous fortified town of Carcassonne, within the region of Languedoc-Roussillon, whose many long established vineyards are finally being recognised for their quality. There are 4 appellations surrounding the village:
Blanquette de Limoux is the region’s most famous wine and 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.
Le Domaine J Laurens.
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.
I tell you all this, so you see what an extraordinary amount of skill, time and money goes into making sparkling wine this way. Bear in mind the cheap stuff is not made with this method, it has 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 pops up in most critics’ recommendations and was one of only 2 Blanquette producers recommended in an article on Limoux by 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.”
Despite being around for centuries, it seems it’s yet to be discovered by Australia. Try something both fresh and classic this summer.
I can offer it for $33 a bottle.
Crémant is a term used in France to refer to the finest dry sparkling wine made outside Champagne, using the same traditional method. The main crémants you’ll come across are Alsace, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Loireand Limoux, but there’s also Bordeaux, Die, Jura and Savoie.
The Loire is my go-to place for interesting wines. The region produces a huge variety of styles (more than any other French region) including red, white, rosé and even sweet dessert styles. But did you know that the Loire is a sparkling wine powerhouse?
The Crémant de Loire appellation was created in 1975 in the Middle Loire, mainly in the region of Saumur, but also in Anjou and Touraine. Crémant de Loire is a dry sparkling wine made in both white and rosé styles. The main variety used is chenin blanc, although a few international varieties like chardonnay are also permitted in the blend. As in Champagne, where pinot noir and pinot meunier are used, red varieties are also allowed, most notably cabernet franc.
The potential of Saumur has been recognised by the Champenois themselves, with several houses setting up shop there, including Taittinger and Alfred Gratien. In the 1970s, the vineyards and wines of Saumur-based Langlois-Chateau estate caught the eye of Champagne heavyweight Bollinger, who acquired a majority share and since then has invested heavily to modernise it.
The Bollinger Family Group acquired a majority stake in Langlois-Chatea in 1973.
The House of Langlois-Chateau was originally created in 1912 by Edouard Langlois and his wife Jeanne Chateau, with the house specialising in sparkling wines. Edouard was tragically killed in 1915 during WWI and subsequently awarded the Military Cross. Jeanne took over running the estate, aided later by both her son and son-in-law.
In 2007 the historical headquarters overlooking the Loire were significantly enlarged and upgraded, with all aspects of production moved there. The winery boasts state of the art pneumatic presses and temperature controlled tanks. There have also been significant changes made to the vineyards, with Langlois-Chateau one of the first estates to obtain the Terra Vitis label, a French benchmark for sustainable vineyard practices. The estate has 71ha of its own vineyards, located in Saumur and Sancerre, with around 60% of the estate’s production devoted to Crémant.
The house’s reputation still rests predominantly on sparkling wine. Langlois-Chateau is one of only three estates in Saumur referred to in the Oxford Companion to Wine, noting “the quality of winemaking is high.”
The estate is a long-time supporter of both the French equestrian school in Saumur and the nearby Le Mans 24-hour classic (for car nuts).
These two wines receive the same attention to detail and are subject to the same exacting standards as Bollinger’s best champagnes. Both see grapes handpicked and pressed gently in state-of-the-art pneumatic presses. The care taken in winemaking is far beyond category standards and at the level of only the very top Champagne producers.
This wine is a blend of 60% chenin blanc, 20% chardonnay and 20% cabernet franc, the fruit coming from 6 terroirs, with a predominance of chalky soil, as in Champagne.
The different parcels of fruit are kept separate (by variety and site) for the initial ferment. The blend is then assembled with 10% reserve wines (ie. older, more complex wines) and the second ferment in bottle, like champagne. It then spends a minimum of 24 months maturing on lees (the dead yeast cells in the bottle) in the 6km of the estate’s freestone cellars.
The chenin really gives this such a fresh, green apple crunch. Behind this crisp delicacy though, you’ll find unexpected complexity for a wine of this price.
“This is a round, mouth-filling sparkling wine with ripe flavours layered with grapefruit acidity and a tight, final texture that is crisp and mineral.” 90 points, Wine Enthusiast.
“Langlois Chateau Crémant de Loire Brut NV Sparkling wine has vibrant and racy fruit, bready yeast flavours and zesty appley freshness, accompanied by the waxed lemony flavours of a Chenin Blanc. Fresh orchard-fruit aromas burst from the glass of this easy-drinking Chenin-Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay blend. In the mouth it’s honeyed and balanced with an Old World feel. The Crémant de Loire Appellation is among the most demanding sparkling wine appellations in France. Under Bollinger, Langlois has further augmented the regulations to equal, and even exceed, those of Champagne.” Decanter Magazine.
“This has finesse on the palate, freshness and a delicate, persistent mousse. Crisp acidity, vibrant lemon sherbet characters, but also plush and rounded on the mid-palate. Complex and long with a pronounced green apple character on the finish. Will keep.” Andy Howard MW.
“Fresh orchard-fruit aromas burst from the glass of this easy-drinking Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay blend. In the mouth it is honeyed and balanced with an Old World feel. A good-value winter party fizz from a Bollinger-owned estate.” Decanter Dec 2017, Recommended.
Bollinger pedigree. This is great drinking.
I can offer it for $35 a bottle
And if you’re looking for a few other sparkly suggestions, how about…