The Benedictine monks of Limoux in Southwestern France, it is said, invented the world's first sparkling wine in 1531, well over a century before another Benedictine, Dom Pierre Pérignon, perfected the more familiar fizzy wine that caught the world's attention as Champagne.
A simple question says it all: What did they put it in? Even during Pérignon's era in the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century - much less a century earlier in Limoux - modern glass bottle and cork technology were in their infancy, and fermentation science wasn't understood at all. Even as late as the early 1800s, according to Hugh Johnson in Vintage: The Story of Wine, as much as 80 percent of Champagne production was lost to bottles exploding in the chalk cellars beneath Reims and Epernay, victims of flawed bottle glass, out-of-control fermentation ... or both.
Fizz was a natural occurrence in the tartly acidic white wines of both Limoux and Champagne, where fermentation would re-start in the barrels every spring after activity had halted during winter's cold. But in the custom of the time, these wines weren't routinely bottled. The light, fragile and hand-made bottles of the 1500s would have been utterly inadequate to the task of containing a modern Champagne; it wasn't until the 1630s, Johnson writes, that Sir Kenelm Digby, an Englishman, came up with a process for blowing bottles sturdy enough to hold sparkling wine at any acceptable level of risk. Only with the Industrial Revolution a century after that, followed by Pasteur's research into fermentation a generation later, could Champagne finally be produced consistently and bottled with real safety.
So what kind of a wine was sparkling Limoux during the 1500s? The rare Limoux sparkler called "methode ancestrale" ("ancestral method") offers a clue: Slightly fizzy wine was put into bottles when fermentation wasn't quite complete, held in with a cork tied down with twine. A gentle fermentation would continue in the bottle, but would eventually cease when the wine's alcohol content remained at a low 5% or 6%, resulting in a frothy, yeasty and weak beverage with a substantial ration of murky sediment sitting on the bottom of the flask like a home-brewed beer. Even so, it's safe to assume that a lot of Limoux bottles exploded and that if the wine was exported, it wasn't exported far.
A small amount of methode ancestrale Limoux is still made by artisanal producers, but it's safely put into modern sparkling-wine bottles. Much more widely available, however, are Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux, sparkling wines made by the Champagne method, using white grape varieties that include the regional grape Mauzac plus Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
Today's featured wine is a Blanquette de Limoux from the Aimery Sieur d'Arques winery, labeled Saint-Hilaire in the U.S. and Aimery Sieur d'Arques in the rest of the world. At $10, it's one of the best quality-for-value sparkling wines you'll find anywhere.
Saint-Hilaire 2003 Blanquette de Limoux Blanc de Blancs Brut ($9.99)
Clear pale gold, lasting stream of bubbles. Fresh and crisp, apples and just a touch of yeasty "rising bread dough" in the aroma and flavor. Creamy carbonated mouthfeel, dry and acidic; the sharp acid edge may make it a better table wine than for sipping after a toast - it's first-rate with an appropriate food match. U.S. importer: Jack Poust & Co., Inc., NYC. (Nov. 12, 2006)
FOOD MATCH: A tongue-in-cheek tribute to sparkling wine's versatility with food: Fresh-baked baguettes with local-farm bratwurst and Creole mustard.
VALUE: One of the best bubbly bargains around - Champagne quality at one-third the cost - and the $10 price has held locally since the 1997 vintage.
WHEN TO DRINK: Ready to drink, but it's certainly safe to keep it for a year or two on the wine rack or in the cellar.
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The Connoisseurs' Series: Two excellent California reds
One of the small but significant pleasures of our association with California Wine Club's limited-membership Connoisseurs' Series offerings is that I get to taste a couple of really high-quality California wines every month. Connoisseurs' Guide publisher Charlie Olken and California Wine Club's Bruce Boring sort through the highest-rated California wines every month and winnow out a carefully chosen selection of excellent, balanced wines.
Connoisseurs' Series membership is necessarily limited by the tiny production of these great wines, so it's a rare privilege that 30 Second Wine Advisor readers are now eligible to sign on. Connoisseurs' Series members may subscribe for monthly, alternate month or quarterly packages. Each shipment includes two to four bottles of California's top wines, with detailed background information. Monthly shipments average $125-$175, including all shipping and handling. There's no membership charge, no long-term commitment (cancel any time), and every wine is guaranteed.
Visit http://www.cawineclub.com/connseries or call The California Wine Club at 1-800-777-4443 to learn more about The Connoisseur's Series. Feel free to tell them that I sent you ... and, if you join, please don't hesitate to contact me by E-mail and tell me what you think.
Here are my notes on this month's Connoisseurs' Series offerings: An outstanding, cellar-worthy high-end Napa Cabernet, suitable for long-term cellaring; and a beautiful Santa Barbara Syrah that shares the style and grace of the legendary Roman goddess whose name it bears. If you join this week, they'll give you a third Connoisseurs' Series wine with your first order for no additional charge. To join, call 1-800-777-4443 today and ask for this Wine Advisor benefit as part of your first Club shipment.
Ramey Wine Cellars 2003 Jericho Canyon Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($95 retail, $89 per bottle for half or full case orders by Connoisseurs' Series members)
This is an inky, virtualy opaque blackish-purple wine. Intense, concentrated black-fruit aromas leap from the glass, with appetizing and chocolate-mint nuances that add pleasure without obscuring the fruit. Cherry liqueur and dark, earthy semisweet chocolate accompany juicy black fruit on the palate. Nobody would mistake this big boy for an Old World wine, but nicely handled and balanced fruit and acidic structure, 14.5% alcohol and substantial but smooth tannins make it a winner. It's very approachable now, but really deserves cellaring. A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc, it's aged 19 months in a combination of new and older French (Taransaud) oak barrels. Connoisseurs' Guide correctly pegs it as an "opulent" wine, and it fared well with a similarly rich food companion, polpette-style veal burgers topped with dabs of duck foie gras mousse. (Nov. 8, 2006)
Byron Vineyards & Winery 2001 "Io" Santa Barbara County Syrah ($30 list, $26 for half and full case orders from Connoisseurs' Series members.)
Io was the Roman river goddess so beautiful that she turned the head of the
great lord Jupiter himself, and this is one beauty of a Rhone-style California wine. Blackish-purple in color, clear but dark, it breathes aromas of black plum and black cherry and warm spice. Flavors are consistent with the nose, adding a fragrant grind (or two) of fresh black pepper. Nicely balanced with a sturdy acidic structure, it's big enough to carry 14.8% alcohol with style and grace. Sourced from Santa Barbars's sought-after Byron and Stolpman vineyards, it's mostly Syrah (93%), with 3.5% each of Grenache and Mourvedre. A robust wine, it paired well with a robust autumnal dinner of flanken-style beef ribs pot roasted with onions, garlic, carrots and celery. (Nov. 5, 2006)
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Some highlights of recent articles on WineLoversPage.com that I hope you'll enjoy:
Bucko's Wine Reports: Late Autumn 2006
WebWineMan: Beaujolais and Mâcon
Hot topics in our WineLovers Discussion Groups
Poll: Best wine with turkey
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Can you taste organic? (Nov. 10, 2006)
Beaujolais, not Nouveau (Nov. 8, 2006)
Sparkling season (Nov. 6, 2006)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Seafood risotto (Nov. 9, 2006)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Nov. 13, 2006