France's oldest sparkling wine fights for its future

LIMOUX, France Tue Jun 12, 2012 11:56am EDT

A woman tastes red wine in Bordeaux, southwestern France, November 6, 2007. REUTERS/Regis

A woman tastes red wine in Bordeaux, southwestern France, November 6, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Regis

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LIMOUX, France (Reuters) - The sparkling wine from the region around this town in southwestern France claims to be the bubbly with the oldest mention in official records.

Limoux barely escaped historical relegation as a local specialty by a flood of Spanish fizz from the other side of the Pyrénées mountains and is now fighting its corner with an offer of quality sparkling wines at affordable prices for its sweet traditional Blanquette de Limoux Methode Ancestrale and dryer Blanquette de Limoux Brut.

"Twenty years ago the quality of Limoux wines in general was not very good," said Richard Planas, the director of the AOC Limoux professional body. "A lot of work has been done and a lot has changed."

Limoux lies to the south of the Medieval walled city of Carcassonne, not far from the Mediterranean and the eastern Pyrénées. The area has plenty of sun and rain while the winds from both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean soften the temperature extremes in both summer and winter.

The Roman historian Livy who died in 17 AD mentioned wines from Limoux, but the first mention of a sparkling wine from the area was found in 1531 records kept by the Benedictine monks of the abbey of Saint Hilaire, near the town.

"It is of course difficult to claim being the first, sparkling wine is a natural effect of yeast and it could have been discovered at several places around that time," Planas said.

Other sparkling wines with a long pedigree are the Gaillac bubbly, also from the southwest, and the Clairette de Die from the northeast.

Legend has it that Dom Pérignon travelled during a pilgrimage to the Saint-Hilaire abbey - on the way to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain - and discovered the process of sparkling wines there.

On return to his abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers near Reims, he started to experiment with the technique on local wines from the Champagne region with another monk, Dom Thiery Ruinart. Champagne quickly overshadowed its predecessors.

"Champagne is in another league altogether, both in volume terms as in price," said Planas.

Blanquette means "white one" in southern French, a term also used for a cream sauce in such dishes as the 'Blanquette de veau' traditional veal stew.

In 1975, French vintner groups decided that bubbly wines from outside the Champagne are should be labeled "Crémant" (creamy) and the country now knows various varieties such as the Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Jura and also Crémant de Limoux. The term crémant may only be used on wine from France and Luxembourg.

These wines were widely consumed in France as a cheaper, and often regional, alternative to Champagne. But they themselves lost ground to Cava sparkling wine from Catalonia in Northern Spain, with Barcelona's Freixenet as a big brand name, or the Asti Spumante or Prosecco from Italy.

ANT VS SHOVEL

"For us, the biggest competition is from the Cava," said Planas. "It is a battle between an ant and a shovel; they make some 300 million bottles against our 10 million."

Spanish Cava production makes it the second-biggest growing area of sparkling wine after Champagne. Since 1986 when Spain joined the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the EU, the cava found its way across the mountains and to other countries. Limoux only has limited means to resist.

There are 7,800 hectares of vines spread over 41 villages around Limoux, producing sparkling and ‘normal' wines.

The Blanquette Brut predominantly uses a local grape variety, the Mauzac. Up to 10 percent of Chenin and Chardonnay are permitted.

The producers harvest and press grapes from various parcels and start making basis wines with the first fermentation. These are tasted to determine the blend for the final product.

The blend is put in bottles and a special mixture is added to provoke a second fermentation that creates the bubbles. This second fermentation takes nine months, during which the bottles are regularly turned to let the sediments settle in the neck.

The Crémant de Limoux is made with Chardonnay and Chenin and some addition of Mauzac and Pinot Noir. The Blanquette Methode Ancestrale uses only Mauzac, is trickier to make and needs to be bottled in March when the moon is at a certain point.

No mixtures are added to the bottles at the beginning of the second fermentation and some sediment remains in the bottle. These ‘pure' traditional wines are sweeter due to the sugar in Mauzac that fuels the fermentation.

Cooperative

There are dozens of vintners in the area, producing wines under the various Limoux AOC and also the wider Languedoc label. The area is known to be good for Pinot Noir that is used by other red wine makers.

The largest grouping is the cooperative ‘Sieur d'Arques' , named after a local squire who was known to enjoy the jugs of bubbly made by the St Hillaire monks, and which markets sparkling wines as "Premiere Bulle" (First Bubbly) in a standard, premium and rosé version.

The cooperative also provided Pinot Noir for the Red Bicycle wine of E & J Gallo in the United States. But several commercial staff members were convicted for having supplied a different grape variety.

"The affair has not really damaged Limoux, it was limited to some commercial staff at the cooperative and not related to the sparkling wine," Planas said.

Next to the cooperative there are various firms catering to specific clients and tastes, such as Bruno Delmaz of Domaine Delmaz who has taken the route of "bio" ecology friendly wines.

Planas said that while the number of producers has declined over the decades in a trend from smaller plots to bigger vineyards, there remains a lively community.

"There are two young vintners who are having their first year of production this year, there still is new blood."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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