Depending on where you live, some of the WSET Diploma can feel theoretical only. When I studied for the sparkling wine section, much of the focus was on Champagne, Cava, Crémant, Sekt, Italian styles and New World sparklers, all of which we were able to taste as part of our class, and which were also readily available for further study. However, we were also expected to cover some lesser known wines, and today I have an example of one which I’m tasting for the first time, the Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux Brut 2005.
The sparkling wine exam was actually one of the easiest, in that the amount of material covered was fairly small. You could almost be guaranteed that there would be Champagne related question, and then it could be anything for the other two questions, but there were only so many topics. My exam consisted of the fairly straightforward topics Négociant-manipulant, Cava DO, and Crémant. The result was correspondingly high pass rate of 77%. Had the Crémant question been swapped with a question on the sparkling wines of Limoux, I think the result might have been a bit different, because while I could have covered the basics, I had pages of detail on Crémant through not just France but Luxembourg as well.
Limoux is an appellation in the south of France in the hills leading up to the Spanish border. It is among the coolest regions within Languedoc, with both altitude and distance from the sea setting it apart. The climate is Mediterranean, though the influence of the Atlantic is felt more, further distinguishing it as cooler and wetter than its neighbouring regions. The soils are rocky, with clay, sandstone and limestone making up distinct subzones.
While there is some production of still, red wine, the area is best known for sparkling, white wine. It is claimed by locals to be the birthplace of sparkling wine, with records dating back to 1531, well before bubbles were mastered in Champagne. The technique originally used is now known as Méthode Ancestrale, which involves bottling wine which has not finished fermenting. The fermentation continues in bottle, resulting in a somewhat sweet, often cloudy wine with a relatively low level of alcohol and carbonation. Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale is a wine of the region made in that manner, exclusively from the Mauzac grape. Blanquette in Occitan means white, though it often is used to refer to Mauzac in this context.
In addition, sparkling wine is made in the traditional method, with a second fermentation being instigated in bottle followed by disgorgement as opposed to the initial fermentation continuing and no disgorgement. This takes the form of sparkling wine made under the labels Blanquette de Limoux (Méthode Traditionnelle) and Crémant de Limoux. While both are produced in the same manner as Champagne, the difference between the two is that Blanquette de Limoux must be made up of at least 90% Mauzac, with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc completing the blend, while Crémant de Limoux must be a majority of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, a minority of Mauzac, with a small portion of Pinot Noir permitted but not required.
Mauzac (Blanc), or sometimes Blanquette, is a white skinned grape largely found in the vicinity of Limoux or Gaillac 100km to the north. While there are Mauzac Rosé and Mauzac Noir varieties as well, they are particularly rare and Mauzac without a colour almost always refers to the Blanc variety. The grape buds and ripens late, which seems an odd choice for Limoux given its relatively cool and wet climate. It has highly variable yields, which in part explains its decreasing popularity with growers. It it typically picked early to retain acidity needed in sparkling wine, but often at the cost of the characteristic apple peel flavour that comes with further ripening. In addition to Limoux and Gaillac, it’s apparently one of the permitted (but almost never used) white grapes of Bordeaux. Wikipedia references a Decanter article that claims there are seven permitted white grapes, but other sources list eight, but all include Mauzac – news to me.
[A tweet from the good people at Rives Blanques after this was initially published informed me that Mauzac is also used in still white wine in AOC Limoux, where is it picked by hand, fermented and aged in bottle - something I overlooked in researching this post. They of course would know, as they produce wines across AOC Limoux, AOC Blanquette de Limoux, and AOC Crémant de Limoux, as well as a few others.]
Like the Lambrusco of last week, information on this producer is somewhat thin on the ground, but I did manage to find a few titbits. The name on the label, Saint-Hilaire, is the monastery where monks are said to have invented Vin Blanquette and Méthode Rurale in 1531. The wine itself was produced at/by La Cave des Vignerons du Sieur d’Arques, a winemaking cooperative and the largest winery in Limoux. This wine is not listed on their direct order website, and given that the front and back labels are in English (and that there’s a back label at all), I’m guessing this is produced exclusively for export. At some point, after more research, it would be worth writing a post exclusively about cooperatives because they can be a huge part of trade depending on the area, but it’s rare that I (knowingly) encounter cooperative wines.
As to this wine in the glass, it is clear and bright with pale lemon green colour, multiple steady streams of bubbles, and a ring of bubbles where the glass meets the top of the pour. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium minus intensity. I get the classic baking powder note of carbon dioxide which often makes it difficult for me to smell anything else, but also some green apple and pear, and a hint of biscuit/dough. On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium minus alcohol, medium minus intensity, and a medium minus length. It has notes of sour apple, herbs, and some hay or grass – not freshly cut New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but more dried and almost bitter.
I’ll give this a good, because there are no faults, even if it is lacking in a few key areas. Since it’s my first Blanquette de Limoux I don’t have a reference point, but what I’ve read about Mauzac is spot on in terms of tasting so it gets full marks for typicity. As with all first tries, it does make me wish I had another or a few so as to get a better sense of the style and quality, but most of all it makes me wish I had access to a varietal Mauzac to get me another step closer to a century of varietal wines.