Traversed by the Aude River, not far upstream from picturesque Carcassonne, the city of Limoux sits serenely on the shoulders of the Pyrenees in southern Languedoc.
Peaceful and scenic today, Limoux was not always so tranquil. According to the municipal website, the city once was a hotbed of heresy—until Simon de Montfort and his troops put a stop to Cathar apostasy there during the Albigensian Crusade. A century later, the city was ravaged for the first time by the Black Plague. Additional centuries of sackings, plagues, fires and floods followed. Things settled down eventually, however. The city prospered through commerce in tanning, textiles, wine and wheat.
Cause for Celebration
Limoux is famous today for its carnival, which takes place during the first three months of each year. According to writer Sylvia Edwards Davis, the Carnival of Limoux is the world’s longest festival. Distinctly secular, it celebrates relief from taxes that were imposed on flour millers by religious authorities in the Middle Ages.
Masked revelers and bands of musicians troop through city streets morning, afternoon and evening each Saturday and Sunday during the festival months. Some participants pay homage to the medieval millers by dressing in white. Others wear colorful Pierrot outfits with “beautiful shoes and very fine gloves.” According to Davis, celebrants must observe “arcane rules.” Costumes, musical repertoire and tonalities, and even gestures made with carabènes (magic wands) are strictly regulated.
On the final night, known as the nuit de la blanquette, merrymakers assemble in the town square for a mock court proceeding, conducted in Occitan (the language of the Cathars), in which the carnival king (a mannequin known as Sa Majesté Carnaval) “ineluctably is condemned” to be burned at the stake for his pranks. Some of the participants prostrate themselves before the pyre, casting their masks and carabènes into the inferno as they sing, “Adiu pauvre Carnaval” (Goodbye poor Carnaval). After the flames subside, everyone consumes traditional foods and quaffs the local bubbly.
Languedoc-Roussillon is the southernmost chunk of mainland France, hugging the Mediterranean from Provence down to the border with Spain. Names and boundaries have shifted over the centuries. Since 2016 Languedoc-Roussillon has been part of a new administrative region called Occitanie.
Languedoc is a very good place to make wine. The soil is suitably fertile and the weather— influenced by the Mediterranean —is excellent. The challenge in these circumstances is to avoid making too much wine.
Due to its altitude, Limoux is a bit cooler than other parts of Languedoc. Its weather is influenced by the Bay of Biscay to the west rather than by the Mediterranean.
Cool weather probably is responsible for Limoux’s early and continuing eminence in the production of sparkling wine. In centuries past, cool fall weather suspended fermentation of new wine, which resumed as temperatures rose the following spring, generating bubbles.
Jancis Robinson writes: “For centuries [Limoux] has been devoted to the production of white wines that would sparkle naturally after a second fermentation in the spring. … Locals claim that fermentation in bottle was developed here long before it was consciously practiced in Champagne.”
Indeed, locals claim that Benedictine monks at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire (located between Limoux and Carcassonne) discovered the first effervescent wine in 1531. Supposedly, Dom Pierre Pérignon, a Benedictine monk often credited with developing sparkling wine in Champagne, learned the secret of the effervescence of wine while stopping at the abbey on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
According to the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL), wine produced in the Limoux AOC may be still or sparkling. The principal white grapes in Limoux are Mauzac, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. You probably are familiar with Chenin Blanc, which also is popular in the Loire Valley and South Africa. Mauzac, grown mainly in Southwest France, is less well known. Around Limoux it is called blanquette.
Sparkling wines from Limoux should be readily available at your favorite wine shop. We recently sampled three sparklers from Domaines Paul Mas (paulmas.com/en/), a family firm run by Jean-Claude Mas, a fourth-generation grape grower and first-generation winemaker who sources grapes from 12 family-owned estates. Mas says the character of his wines is luxe rural, “an appreciation of the simple pleasures of life, artfully rendered by nature.”
Wine expert Karen MacNeill writes, “The word crémant is used to describe a French sparkling wine that is made outside the Champagne district but according to the traditional (Champagne) method.” She adds that Crémant de Limoux is made in 41 small villages (including Saint-Hilaire) near Limoux. It must comprise 40 to 70 percent Chardonnay, 20 to 40 percent Chenin Blanc, 10 to 20 percent Mauzac and up to 10 percent Pinot Noir.
The Côté Mas Crémant de Limoux Brut Méthode Traditionnelle AOP NV ($16) is a pale straw color. Bubbles streaming up from the root of one’s glass and yeasty fragrances that emanate from the trembling liquid within introduce flavors of green apples, pears and citrus. This crémant is made of 60 percent Chardonnay, 20 percent Chenin Blanc, 10 percent Pinot Noir and 10 percent Mauzac. Tart and refreshing, it is great paired with seafood—particularly with seared scallops.
The Côté Mas Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale AOP NV ($16) is 100 percent Mauzac—made in an unusual way. Winemaker Jean-Claude Mas reports that he ferments his blanquette in stainless steel vats until the alcohol level reaches about seven percent, when he chills it to stop fermentation. The following March, he adds yeast to the wine and bottles it with a temporary cap. A second fermentation then takes place. The bottle is disgorged to remove sediment and sealed with a cork. This elaborate process replicates the style of the original blanquettes but allows Mas to control alcohol levels and residual sugar content.
The resulting wine is the color of pale straw. Emitting fragrances of apples, its forthright flavors of ripe red apples and apple skins remind one of fresh cider. The wine’s natural sweetness (from residual sugar) is balanced by crisp acidity. The alcohol content is low—about seven and a half percent. This is an excellent wine to serve with dessert—with birthday cake, for example.
The Côté Mas Crémant de Limoux Rosé Brut AOP NV ($16) is a pinkish salmon color. Bubbles rise through it like cumulus clouds ascending into the western sky late on a summer afternoon. Alluring aromas of fruit, yeast and minerals promise imminent delights—tart strawberry and watermelon flavors supplemented by peaches and a touch of yeast. The wine comprises 70 percent Chardonnay, 20 percent Chenin Blanc and 10 percent Pinot Noir. It is excellent with crab salad. Or on its own as an aperitif. We thought it was just wonderful.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Louisville. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.