The town of Limoux lies on the river Aude 25 kilometres upstream from Carcassonne in Aude, Occitanie. It has two claims to international fame: its sparkling wine – and its carnival. Colin Duncan Taylor goes to a historic carnival and sips the oldest sparkling wine in the world
The longest carnival in the world
Venice may boast the oldest and Rio the largest, but Limoux claims to have the longest carnival in the world. Around 600 dancers belonging to 30 different troupes ensure that these festivities can be sustained three times a day, every weekend – plus Mardi Gras – from the end of January until early April.
The Carnival of Limoux is unusually compact. Here, there are no carnival floats, no long parades. Events unfold in the intimacy of the medieval square with a graceful beauty which has been described as a miraculous combination of immobility and movement.
Join them for a slow dance
Each procession starts at one of the cafés on the square and continues to the next, and there are so many watering-holes beneath the arcades, the road is never a long one. Typically, the dancers advance around 40 metres in 20 minutes, so spectators have all the time in the world to take photographs and admire the masquerade.
Two accessories are essential to the traditional carnival dancer’s performance. First the wand, around two metres long and made from reeds gathered on the Mediterranean coast just after the first frosts of January. Second, the confetti bag, coloured to match each dancer’s costume, and large enough to hold several kilograms of shredded paper.
The birth of the carnival
The carnival started in the 16th century when most wind or water mills around Limoux were worked by tenants. These millers had to pay their annual rent at the end of winter, and each year when they had settled their dues, they celebrated. Legend claims that when, in 1582, this celebration coincided with Mardi Gras, the millers paraded in the central square accompanied by oboes, fifes and drums. The Carnival of Limoux was born.
Rowdy and sometimes violent
These festivities sometimes turned violent. Take 1605, for example: there was a torchlit procession and joyful dancing beneath the arcades to the music of violin and drums, but then fighting broke out between rival factions, and some of the town’s consuls were roughed up in the melee. In the 18th century, the carnival was often a rowdy affair fuelled by tensions between the rich and the poor. There were frequent stand-offs between hatters, weavers and merchants, and municipal authorities were jeered and even stoned.
Today, the carnival is a peaceful affair and the only threat of violence comes on the last night when the carnival king is tried for his crimes. Seven judges hear evidence for and against the poor king, although everyone knows what the verdict will be. It’s the same every year: death by burning. Luckily, the king is only a straw mannequin and he goes up in flames like a Christmas tree.
The oldest sparkling wine in the world
The last night of the carnival is known as la nuit de la blanquette, named in honour of a sparkling wine called Blanquette de Limoux, the town’s other claim to fame. Blanquette de Limoux promotes itself as the oldest sparkling wine in the world, and there is no better place to taste it than at the carnival. These festive companions share a heritage that stretches back to the 16th century, and according to some sources, the slow rhythmic gestures of the carnival dance represent the peasants pressing the grapes with their feet. But how did the wine first get its fizz?
The legend of Saint-Hilaire
The Abbey of Saint-Hilaire lies halfway between Carcassonne and Limoux. It was founded by Benedictine monks in the early ninth century. Before long, they were tending vines, and a document from the year 931 records that a vineyard was donated to the abbey. In the bedrock beyond the cloisters, the monks dug out caves, and this is where they made and stored their wine.
One day in 1531, a monk was sent to fetch a bottle, and on removing the stopper, he discovered that a second fermentation had taken place. The wine was fizzy. By accident, the monks of Saint-Hilaire had created the world’s first sparkling wine.
The story does not end there. A century later, legend has it that the monks received a visit from one of their brothers in the north. Naturally they served him their sparkling wine, and the good Dom Pérignon returned to his monastery at Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers in Champagne with the recipe hidden in his habit.
Fake news or hard news?
The first part of this legend gained a little more credibility when a document dating to 1544 was discovered in 2013. It is a ledger kept by the Limoux town treasurer, and an entry records that various wines were supplied to Sieur d’Arques, and among them were four pints of blanquette to accompany the good lord’s dinner (today, Sieur d’Arques is the name of the main cooperative and it is an excellent place for a dégustation.)
Unfortunately there was no mention of the wine being effervescent, or even that it came from Limoux. Blanquette was the old name for a local type of vine which is now called mauzac, and any wine derived from the mauzac or blanquette vine was also called blanquette, and although this vine was primarily cultivated in the Midi, it was not exclusive to Limoux.
So, although today a wine can only be called Blanquette de Limoux if it is effervescent and contains at least 90% mauzac, we know little about the wine that Sieur d’Arques was drinking in 1544, apart from its name.
Silencing the doubters
We have to wait until the start of the 19th century for the first written confirmation of effervescence: in 1801, a certain Dr Fau claimed that his sparkling mineral water was far superior to Blanquette de Limoux with its frothy fermentation. Some wines from Limoux were undoubtedly effervescent before then, but it is impossible to say when this became a reliable and deliberate characteristic.
In conclusion, although the claims of seniority made by Blanquette de Limoux remain unproven, nowhere else has presented a more credible pitch for the title, Oldest Sparkling Wine in the World. Come to the carnival, follow a troupe of dancers into a bar, and you won’t find anyone who doubts the legend. After a few glasses, neither will you.
About the author
Colin Taylor has lived in the south of France for 20 years, and through his books he shares his passion for the region’s culture, gastronomy, history and language. The story of Roquefort is recounted in much greater detail, along with the stories of many other regional specialities, in his book, ‘Menu from the Midi: A gastronomic journey through the South of France.’
Find out more at www.colinduncantaylor.com