By Celia Strong
Now that the holiday season is almost here, we can talk about the best holiday bubbly — at last. For many years, like the last 10 at least, Prosecco from Italy has been our go-to bottle for good but affordable sparkling wine. So this year I thought it might be nice to have a new experience. Still bubbly, still not expensive. Still, let’s get to it!
Within the world of sparkling wines, there are many different grapes that are used and several ways to get the bubbles into the wine. The wine this week is going to expand our horizons in all these areas.
Let’s start with what we can learn about sparkling wines. Officially, sparkling wines are any wine with some sort of effervescence in them. The effervescence is carbon dioxide bubbles that can get into the wine by either a natural fermentation or by injection. The former can occur in the bottle, known as the “methode champenoise” or “methode traditionelle,” or in tanks, and the latter, is like it sounds, carbon dioxide is actually injected into wines, in tanks, and then bottled. The Champagne, or traditional method, done in individual bottles, is of course more expensive but also makes smaller and more numerous bubbles. It follows that we must all believe that smaller and more numerous is better. Sparkling wines, regardless of how their bubbles are made, come from a wide variety of grapes from many wine regions around the world, range from very dry to very sweet, are usually white or rose but can also be red. Champagne is one region that makes sparkling wines, but the name “Champagne” can only be used for wines made in that region of France from grapes grown in the region.
Historically, effervescence has been observed in wines for centuries. Ancient Greek and Roman writers repeatedly mentioned wines with bubbles, despite their not knowing how the bubbles got there. Phases of the moon or good and bad spirits were popular theories. In Champagne, where bubbles often occurred in their wines, it was believed for centuries that the wines with bubbles were flawed.
Our wine is from France, but not from Champagne. In fact, its history goes back further than Champagne. We’re back in southern France, in the Lanquedoc region, for a wine from Limoux. There are four appellations in Limoux, three of them sparkling. The grapes used for these wines are Blanquette (also known as Mauzac), with smaller amounts of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Wine historians in Limoux believe that the world’s first sparkling wine was made there in 1531. There is written evidence for this in papers, dated 1531, from the Benedictine monks at the Abbey of St. Hilaire in the area. And more, and this is good 100 years after this first sparkling wine, Dom Perignon was at St. Hilaire Abbey before he was sent up to the Abbey in Champagne. We all have heard the story about how he “invented” Champagne wine with bubbles. In fact, the papers from St. Hilaire describe how their wines went through a second fermentation in their bottles (“methode Champenoise”) and the bottles had cork stoppers to hold in the bubbles. (The Limoux area is located just north of the Cork Oak forest of Cataluna, Spain.) Yikes! All those years on a different story. Well, the legend of sparkling wines grows and some of our best Champagne legends change.
Our wine from Limoux is a cremant. “Cremant” is a legal term in France for certain sparkling wines. Namely, those sparkling wines not made in Champagne. These wines must be made with the traditional method, second fermentation that makes the bubbles occur in their bottle, the grapes must be harvested by hand, they must follow their local AC laws, the wines must be aged for at least one year before they are released. There are seven legal cremant wines in France, Cremant de Limoux being one of the newest appellations, declared in 1990. These wines can be made from grapes that grow in 41 villages around Limoux and aged for at least one year. (Another appellation here is Blanquette de Limoux, has only one fermentation, not made in the Champagne method, and aged for a minimum of nine months.) And, these Cremant wines are vintage dated, not the case with many other sparkling wines.
Now, for our particular Cremant de Limoux. Remember a couple of months ago we visited the wines of Gerard Bertrand? The Minervois and the Corbieres? Now, we have his sparkling wines. The vineyards for these wines are situated at 650 feet to 1300 feet above sea level. This gives the grapes a cooler climate than is typical for the Mediterranean area. And we get two great bubbles. The Cremant de Limoux Brut is made from 70% Chardonnay, 10% Mauzac and 20% Chenin Blanc. (Using more Chardonnay may not be the norm in this part of France, but their taste proves it works!) Each variety is fermented in separate stainless steel tanks, then blended and bottled, and the second fermentation is done. Disgorging and “liqueur d’expedition ( determines dryness or sweetness of the bubbly) are done. The wine is a pale straw color with hints of green. The bubbles are tiny, a good thing, I still think. The aromas are biscuits (in France, this means things almost like plain shortbread cookies), hazelnuts and flowers. There are flavors of granny smith apples, lime zest and baked bread. The finish is clean and crisp with a hint of minerality. I’ve tried this wine several times, which means I am several bottles ahead of you, and still look forward to it.
And, for wine number two, we have the Gerard Bertrand Cremant de Limoux Rose. Made from grapes grown in the same vineyards, this wine is 70% Chardonnay, 20% Chenin Blanc and 10% Pinot Noir. In making this bubbly, the still wines are barrel aged before blending and bottling and then the second fermentation. The Chardonnay gives the finished wine finesse, the Chenin Blanc gives it acidity and the Pinot Noir gives it color and nuances of strawberries. The finished wine is a beautiful salmon color with tiny bubbles. It is a bit richer than the Brut and creamier textured. The mineral finish again makes it so very special.
My plan for Thanksgiving is to start with the Brut in the morning. The baking I do that Thursday morning deserves a flute or two. Then, when it’s time to eat, I’ll move over to the Rose. I’m thinking the food will taste better with it. Clean up just means another glass or two. Maybe of each. I know that sounds like a lot of sipping, did not use the word “drinking,” but I have one piece of information you don’t have yet. Prices on the wines are usually $15.99 or so. But not for us. We get the Brut for $9.99 and the Rose for $12.99. And that means the celebrating is on! So let’s move on from Prosecco, up to Cremant de Limoux. And down in price, too! Happy Holiday! Enjoy.
By Celia Strong