Limoux is a small French appellation in the eastern Pyrenees of France, buried deep in the Languedoc and surrounding the town of the same name.
Given the southern location and summer heat it is unusual to find that Limoux is dominated by white grapes – the local Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are grown extensively. This is primarily because of altitude; the vineyards range from 200-400 metres above sea level in this undulating and frequently wild landscape and hence they are some of the coolest in southern France.
Winegrowing here probably dates back to Roman times, but Limoux should be better known for being the true birthplace of fizzy wine. This can be attributed to the Benedictine monks of Saint Hilaire abbey, where records date back at least to 1531 – over a century before bubbles appeared in Champagne! Now that should be a question in Trivial Pursuit! The original fizz made was sweet and low in alcohol and made from the Mauzac grape. It is still made to this day, where it bears the name méthode ancestrale.
However, Limoux produces two other sparkling wines by the more advanced méthod traditionnelle that became established in Champagne. Crémant dates only from 1990, created to take advantage of Chardonnay and Chenin’s ability to make elegant fizz. Mauzac may be included in this blend, but it usually plays second fiddle.
The fizz made predominantly with Mauzac is known as Blanquette. Indeed, Blanquette is a local name for Mauzac, referring to the distinctive white hairs found on the underside of its leaves. For me, Blanquette has a more original and distinctive style and is highly underrated. Here Chardonnay and Chenin play a minor role, principally to add some elegance. Blanquette is perhaps slightly more rustic than Crémant, but it is a true taste of Limoux, and when made well by an artisan winemaker the results are delicious.
July 2007. I’m standing with several hundred others by a dusty roadside at Esperaza waiting for Stage 14 of the Tour de France. The hours pass slowly on a hot morning. Picnic tables laden with bread, cheese and beer are decanted from the backs of dusty Citroëns and Renaults. Corks are popping and children playing, but no cyclists appear. Finally a cavalcade of sponsor and team cars pass, showering gifts and goodwill, building the excitement. Finally the leading cyclists flash past, followed closely by the peloton. In five minutes it’s over. I look at the wooden sign I’ve leant against for the past three hours. In faded letters it says: Delmas, Vins Biologique, Antugnac, à 3 km.
And so we visit Marlene and Bernard Delmas. They have 25 ha of organic vineyards at 300 metres altitude in the southern and coolest part of the Limoux appellation, a sub-zone known as the Haut-Vallée. They grow Mauzac, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir and produce all three fizz styles as well as some excellent still wines – Limoux Chardonnay and a very fine Pinot Noir. All are some of the best wines I found in Limoux.
My pick of the Delmas wines is this Blanquette de Limoux – which is also great value. It’s made from 80% Mauzac and topped up with Chardonnay and a splash of Chenin Blanc. Delmas treats his Mauzac especially well, using the minimum of sulphur, experimenting with skin contact and ageing the wine on the lees longer than the minimum 9 months to enhance flavours.
This isn’t a cheap Champagne look-alike, it has a personality all of its own. There’s a golden hue and a foaming mousse with long-lasting and fine bubbles. On the nose there are delicate citrus, quince and yeasty aromas, while the palate is dry and has fresh creamy acidity and bite. Medium-bodied, there’s a very gentle cider-apple character alongside grapefruit and lemon flavours. A nutty and slightly spicy ending and a clean finish round things off. Drinking now and over the next couple of years (where it develops some honeyed flavour), this isn’t for keeping long-term.
But does it taste as good back home as in Limoux? You bet. Apparently Blanquette was a favourite of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of the United States – and he knew a thing or three about wine.
Try as an aperitif – very refreshing on a hot day – or with fish or chicken accompanied by white sauces.
Price around $19.99. Bargain!