Who Are You? Limoux Wine's Identity Crisis
The fastest-growing French sparkling wine appellation in the US has many faces.
Any visitor to the tiny winemaking area of Limoux in France's southern Languedoc region inevitably hears the local legend about how Dom Pérignon stole the secret of the area's sparkling wines before popularizing it back in Champagne.
Despite being patently untrue, this story highlights the extent to which Limoux's claim to what little fame it enjoys rests upon the legacy of its bubbles. In fact, wine historians credit the region with producing the world's first sparkling wine, thanks to the efforts of some thirsty monks at the abbey of Saint-Hilaire in 1531.
While no one would dispute Limoux's important past, its modern history hasn't fared quite so well. In a 2009 article, Jancis Robinson summarized the situation, depicting a "small and extremely varied wine region, unable to make much of an impact globally".
On the surface, the region's sales figures appear to contradict this claim: Limoux was the fastest-growing French sparkling appellation in the US in 2014. Imports of Limoux fizz increased 24 percent year-on-year to more than 100,000 cases – greater than the volume of all French bubbles combined, excluding Champagne.
It bears mentioning, however, that a single company accounted for more than 700,000 of those bottles – the large cooperative Sieur d'Arques, whose ubiquitous (yet reliable) Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux has become better recognized as a brand unto itself than an ambassador of Limoux. As independent winemaker Bernard Delmas puts it: "Americans don't know Limoux; they know Saint-Hilaire."
This is a shame, as the region makes a wide range of charming wines, both still and sparkling. The latter represent excellent value within their category; it's rare to find Limoux bubbles priced above the $20 mark, and many hover around the $12-15 range, offering an idiosyncratic alternative to familiar options like Cava or Prosecco.
© Sieur d'Arques | Limoux's largest producer, cooperative Sieur d'Arques.
Limoux is an effervescent oasis within a region better known for rustic reds, and thus has always been an anomaly. Nestled in the verdant foothills of the Pyrenees, the region feels topographically set apart from rest of the brushier, craggier Languedoc. The relatively high altitude and a cooling Atlantic influence form a series of distinct mesoclimates capable of delivering unusual freshness and acidity.
So why hasn't Limoux been able to put itself on the map? The answer suggests something of an identity crisis. Today, after decades of bureaucratic tinkering with appellation rules, it produces no less than three different sparkling wine AOPs (appellation d'origine protegée), in addition to a growing quantity of still reds and whites, including:
• Blanquette de Limoux: A distinctively local expression for those eager to broaden their sparkling horizons, this traditional style often suggests tangy yellow apples. Made using the méthode traditionelle, it incorporates at least 90 percent of the region's quirky, indigenous Mauzac grape; the remainder is made up of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
• Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale: When the monks of Saint-Hilaire invented sparkling wine, they fermented it according to the so-called "ancestral method", whereby the juice completes its primary fermentation in bottle, resulting in a semi-sweet, lightly frothy style, traditionally reserved for local consumption. Although originally bottled with the sediment of yeast intact, resulting in a cloudy, cider-like appearance, today's examples – based on 100 percent Mauzac – are almost always filtered, disgorged, and vinified into a cleaner, more commercially viable style. Given the category's low alcohol and gentle kiss of sugar, recent marketing efforts have involved targeting younger drinkers.
• Crémant de Limoux: Created in 1990 at a time when producers were debating whether to preserve the traditional Mauzac-based identity of Blanquette de Limoux or to permit a higher percentage of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, this appellation represents Limoux's modern face. Current legislation allows a blend of up to 90 percent of Chardonnay and Chenin, and up to 20 percent Mauzac and Pinot Noir. It is produced using the méthode traditionelle, and is more "international" in style.
• Limoux Blanc (usually Chardonnay-heavy, always barrel-aged, with a minimum of 15 percent Mauzac) and Limoux Rouge (at least 50 percent Merlot with Grenache, Syrah, Malbec, and Carignan permitted as well) gained official recognition in 1993 and 2003, respectively. It is also increasingly common to see single-varietal Pinot Noirs, which are classified as IGP wines, the category formerly known as vin de pays.
© Les AOC de Limoux | Limoux vines benefit from the cooling influence of altitude.
It would be difficult for any region to translate such a complicated medley into the kind of cohesive "brand narrative" needed to drive sales and build global visibility. "It's confusing for consumers to distinguish between our different appellations and styles," explains Sebastian Lalauze of Domaine de Martinolles, a formerly independent estate that was recently acquired by négociant Domaines Paul Mas. "We need to get the message out better."
To counter this problem of legibility, he supports relaxing the appellation rules to allow greater flexibility with blending, effectively consolidating the Blanquette and Crémant AOPs into one definitive sparkling wine.
"We would love to be free to do what we want and use all the available grapes – Pinot Noir, Chenin, Chardonnay, and Mauzac – to make a desired blend, which would still bear the signature of Limoux." He also advocates for establishing a new "cru" designation for a superior category of sparkling wines, which would be subject to stricter production criteria, including longer aging requirements than the current 12-month minimum.
In these ways, Limoux faces the same inherent challenges as other parts of the Languedoc, as it shifts from a quantity-driven model – typically dominated by large cooperatives – to one based upon quality. To many, however, evolving too quickly risks tampering with tradition, most likely at the expense of the original Mauzac grape.
There are no easy answers, but Bernard Delmas, whose family has worked the soils of Limoux for three generations, offers some perspective on the difficult negotiation between past and future.
"It's the economic reality that we need to cater to the taste of the consumer," he says. "I accept that. But we need to work within the context of a history, a grape variety, and a terroir, if we want a true identity to share with him."