It’s a given that Champagne from the Champagne region of France is the world’s most famous sparkling wine. But according to residents of the Aude their home grown Blanquette de Limoux was the first sparkling wine to be produced in France, at least 150 years before Champagne came on the scene.
Limoux is a pretty town south of Carcassonne in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Its history of wine making goes back a long way as there are records of the Roman historian Livy trading in white wines (non-sparkling) from Limoux during the Roman occupation of the area. But it was in 1531 that the monks of the nearby Abbaye de St Hilaire first put the bubbles into the local white wine to create Blanquette de Limoux.
Local historians believe that Champagne only exists because another monk Dom Perignon (he of the famous brand of Champagne) spent time at the Abbaye de St Hilaire where the monks taught him everything he knew. Dom Perignon took this knowledge back to the Champagne region and developed the méthode champenoise in the late 17th century.
The name Blanquette de Limoux originated because Blanquette is made from the Mauzac grape whose leaves have a white bloom and “Blanquette” means “little white” in the local Occitan language. Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale, which has a fairly low alcohol content, is still made using only the Mauzac grape and with the same methods as the monks all those centuries ago. The other two types of Blanquette known as Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux, have evolved more recently and consist of a minimum of 90% of the Mauzac grape but also contain Chardonnay and Chenin grapes.
Wine experts say that the Mauzac grape produces a wine with distinct aromas of fresh cut grass and apple peel, which sounds very poetic. Personally I find all three Blanquettes very drinkable, just as good as champagne and much cheaper (what more can you ask?).
Under the Appellation d’origine controlée rules only growers within an area of 41 villages around Limoux can produce and market Blanquette. Plenty of these local vineyards offer tastings. The largest is Aimery Sieur d’Arques which also provides tours of its premises (check out the details on www.sieurdarques.com). Apparently the Sieur d’Arques was a 16th century nobleman who after a victory in battle would down lots of Blanquette to celebrate. Naturally four centuries later the founders of the Aimery Sieur d’Arques vineyard named their brand after him.
St Hilaire still produces a fair amount of Blanquette. The Abbaye de St Hilaire still stands in all its glory 13km north of Limoux and is open for visits (its website is www.abbayedesainthilaire.pagesperso-orange.fr)
The town of Limoux is famous not only for the name it has given to the local sparkling wine but also for its carnival that extends from January to March each year(the longest lasting in France). Every weekend from 6 January until 2 weeks before Easter the place de la Republique is full of the “carnavaliers” in their traditional costumes acting out historic folklore scenes. Blanquette must help give them the panache to put on a good celebration.