Stand up the REAL Champagne? The first ever sparkling wine of France, produced in 1531, a century before Dom Perignon.
Everyone loves the pomp and ceremony of opening a bottle of Champagne – there’s a reason the fizzy wine is first choice for celebrations everywhere.
Its expensive price ensures it’s a drink for special occasions – but, does it taste any better? Or are you just buying into the branding and marketing of this luxurious product. The price tag for some bottles of Champagne leaves many of us aghast but, that tell-tale pop of the cork and the sight of fine bubbles sparkling away really does make us all feel happy. There is no doubt that the taste and unique flavour of Champagne makes it stand out from other wines. Sometimes a glass of Cava or Prosecco feels like a pretty good second best (and much cheaper choice). But have you tried Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine from Languedoc, if you do, you might find it goes to the top of the class.
Blanquette de Limoux
Why? Well it looks the same as Champagne for one. There are many varieties of this sparkling alternative but it tastes pretty similar to many Champagnes I’ve enjoyed and much more importantly, it’s more than half of the price. You can get a Cremant (more on that later) de Limoux for as little as 4 Euros in many shops in France but I find that if you choose those priced between 6 to 12 Euros (the general recommended prices) you won’t be disappointed.
I visited the Sieur D’Arques in Limoux, one of the most important wine producers in the Languedoc to discover the provenance of this nectar and of course partake in a degustation. We were met by a friendly tour guide who showed us around the domain and told us the history.
Are you sitting comfortably (with a glass in your hand)?
Blanquette de Limoux is considered to be the first sparkling white wine produced in France and it was created long before the Champagne region became world renowned. Although the vineyards date back to the 5th Century BC, introduced by the Greeks, this particular wine was discovered in 1531. A hundred years before Dom Perignon, some Benedictine Monks were fermenting a white wine at the Abbey in Saint-Hilaire. It was produced in cork stoppered flasks (the cork oak forest south of Limoux were an important factor). To this day an age old tradition is followed to bottle at the time of the full moon in March ready for the warmer weather to start the secondary fermentation that produces les bulles (the bubbles) and the fabulous sparkle within the bottles
Local lore suggests that Dom Perignon may have visited the Abbey and took this ‘invention’ to the Champagne region although there doesn’t appear to any proof of this.
All the grapes for Blanquette have to be harvested by hand into small boxes to prevent bruising, and the regulations also limit the yield to ensure a quality product. Growers who can produce and market Blanquette are limited to a set area of 41 villages around the 2000 year old town of Limoux. The original Blanquette Ancestrale was produced from the Mauzac grape. In more recent years to produce the Crémant and the Blanquette de Limoux Traditional, the Chenin grape was introduced from the Loire region and the Chardonnay grape from the Burgundy region. The Mauzac gives the wine its body and aroma and the Chenin and the Chardonnay add to this by reinforcing the bouquet, freshness and finesse. The name Sieur d’Arques comes from the local lords who swigged this wine centuries ago.
Every year at the end of March, each village which produces the grapes that make the Blanquette submits four barrels. The wine is auctioned off to bidders who consist mainly of large organisations, Michelin star chefs and restaurants – an event known as” Toques et Clochers”. It is the largest wine auction in France after the famous Hospices de Beaune. After the auction, a lavish gastronomic feast is held for 1000 guests cooked by a Michelin-starred chef. The money raised goes towards renovating the local bell towers and each year a village is chosen as the recipient of funds. They hold a festival to celebrate and thousands of visitors come to join in at this decidedly unique and quirky wine event.
Read about the St Vincent Tournante wine festival in Burgundy, an ancient and colourful winter wine festival.
Wine Tasting Tips
A wine lover’s tour of France
Honor Marks runs the Maison de La Roche, Languedoc-Roussillon