It is an unlikely spot to have been the birthplace of the world’s favourite tipple; the one we all reach for to celebrate a birth, a joyful union or a life well lived. A small jewel of Romanesque architecture, the abbey of Saint-Hilaire is one of the most beautiful in France. Hidden in the remote depths of the Languedoc region, surrounded by rolling vineyards with the high peaks of the Pyrenees bordering the horizon, Saint-Hilaire is where a group of monks first discovered sparkling wine; a wine that became the precursor of champagne.
The village of Saint-Hilaire, close to the larger town of Limoux, has a history dating back to the Roman era. Named after Hilaire the first bishop of Carcassonne who lived in the sixth century, an abbey was erected where he had once had a small chapel at the beginning of the 9th century. This Benedictine abbey was originally named after Saint-Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, then in 970, the relics of Saint-Hilaire were moved to the abbey and its name was changed reflecting its new patronage.
The legend goes that the monks’ amazing discovery came about purely by chance or happy accident. One year the monks bottled their wine a little early and an exceptionally cold winter arrested the fermentation. That was followed by a warm spell in March and, when inspecting their bottles, the monks noticed that the wine had started to re-ferment. Upon opening the bottles the monks were surprised to find ‘gorgeous bubbles!’
This was well over a hundred years before Dom Pérignon developed his own method of making sparkling wine in 1668, which became known as Champagne. Although the story is disputed by some Champagne growers, it has been corroborated by Pierre Caizergues, founder of Pierre Tailleur de Vins. “It is written in black and white, in Old French, in a document dating back to 1544,” he confirms. “The first ever historical reference to sparkling wine was right here in Limoux. Blanquette de Limoux, which means ‘little white’ in the Occitan language, made by Benedictine monks in the abbey of Saint-Hilaire, inspired other monks particularly those further north, to produce their own versions.”
Wine growing in the Languedoc region of France has a long and illustrious history dating back to the fifth century BC, when the Greeks first introduced the vine and viticulture to the area. They were followed by the Romans. There is mention of the white wine of Limoux in a book about the history of Rome, written by Titus Livius; an indication of how even at that time, the fame of Limoux’s wine had spread far and wide.
Wine has been produced in Limoux for many centuries; the AOC Blanquette de Limoux was the first AOC* in the Languedoc and one of the very first appellations in France. Delimited in 1929, the production area of the Limoux ‘cru’ gave birth in 1938 to an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée with Blanquette de Limoux and Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale.
As you drive into Limoux you can’t fail but notice the enormous building containing the smart glass shopfront and cellar of one of the main producers, Sieur d’Arques, home of the ‘Premier Bulle’. Created in 1946 by a small group of wine growers who wanted control of their own destiny, the Société Des Producteurs de Blanquette de Limoux only changed its name to Sieur d’Arques in the 1990s. Since its creation, the company has continued the work of its remarkable ‘artisans’, those ‘vignerons’ who were keen to share their ancestral know-how with all who love remarkable wines, and it is now a cooperative of over two hundred growers.
The name Sieur d’Arques was taken from that of the sixteenth century Lord or Seigneur of the region who was a great lover of sparkling wine and liked to consume ‘flasks’ of Blanquette to celebrate his victories.
The Limoux area is grouped into four distinct climatic ‘terroirs’ that give wine growers both excellent grapes and an interesting diversity of aromatic and flavor characteristics. Situated in the far south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Limoux sits in a wide valley alongside the river Aude. The valley becomes ever narrower and the river more of a rushing torrent before it meets the wall of the Pyrenees thirty kilometers further south at the small town of Quillan. To the north, as the river widens, is the town of Carcassonne with its world-famous citadel. The influences of the Mediterranean in the east, the Pyrenees Mountains in the south and the lesser Montagnes Noires in the north all meet here in Limoux and its situation ensures good sunshine levels and evenly spread rainfall throughout the year.
The word terroir comes from the French word for earth, terre, and is one of those ‘catch all’ words that refers not only to the particular type of soil in a vineyard, but to the climate, elevation, the angle of sun, and also to the intentions of the agriculteurs who produce the wine.
Limoux’s unique terroir within the Languedoc region explains the prevalence of Mauzac, a white grape variety, in an area known mostly for its reds. While most of Languedoc’s appellations are grown in the warmer Mediterranean climate further to the east, Limoux’s proximity to the Pyrenees mountains tempers the Mediterranean heat, providing cooler, higher altitude slopes on elevations up to fifteen hundred feet on which to plant the vines. While the monks may not have had the technology and tools we have today, it was they who discovered the potential of Limoux’s slopes and planted the Mauzac grape with its fantastic ability to craft sparkling wines.
Under the rules of the appellation Blanquette de Limoux, which is a dry wine, it must be made in the traditional method with at least nine months aging on lees. Furthermore, it can contain only three grape varieties, the aforementioned Mauzac, which must make up at least ninety percent of the wine, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. In the 1960s, Limoux winemakers decided to add a small amount of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc in order to bring more structure, acidity and additional aromatics to the wine but this percentage is strictly limited in order to preserve the typicity of the Mauzac grape.
Blanquette de Limoux’s three grape varieties find their full expression on the clay-limestone soils of Limoux, and Blanquette is typically a wine bursting with aromatic complexity, freshness and minerality; more fruit-forward and softer than its northerly cousin in Champagne. Mauzac is said to offer ‘a unique and charming aromatic profile, full of orchard fruits such as crisp apple and fresh pear.’
In addition to the historically important Blanquette de Limoux, the Limoux area produces two other sparkling wines, Crémant de Limoux, a dry bubbly made mostly from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc (except for the rosé which includes Pinot Noir), and Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale, a hundred percent Mauzac; a slightly sweet, low alcohol sparkling wine.
One of the best examples of the Méthode Ancestrale is Antech’s Blanquette de Limoux Brut Réserve. This family-owned winery, a pioneer in the region, is now being run by the sixth and seventh generations who specialize in Limoux sparkling wines. The Brut Réserve Blanquette 2018 is a vintage wine, made from Antech’s best Mauzac cuvées.
Tasting notes: it has a pale yellow color with golden reflections and fine bubbles. The aromas and flavors are of green apples, pears and almonds. It is crisp with a balanced acidity while at the same time being lively with a slightly creamy texture. It goes well with any meats or fish.
Le Guide Hachette regularly selects Antech Grande Réserve 2007 blanc. They write that Antech’s reputation is confirmed as being serious and of the highest level with this exceptional brut. It has a luminous colour and delivers an aroma of rare finesse – floral, fruity (fresh apples) and lightly toasted with beautiful harmony on the palate and aromas that persist on the nose.
For a Crémant, try Aimery’s Grande Cuvee 1531, a Cremant de Limoux Rosé Brut from another of Limoux’s larger producers in the Sieur d’Arques cooperative. This is named after the year in which the monks of Saint-Hilaire first made their famous discovery. It is a dry rosé sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc as well as a touch of Pinot Noir to give it a gorgeous subtle pink hue. Tasting notes: enticing aromas of crushed raspberries, strawberries and ripe peaches characterize the nose, while the palate offers a refreshing acidity, smooth bubbles and delicious berry flavours.
À votre Santé!
* AOC = Appelation d’Origine Controlle is a quality standard.
Notes on Champagne.
Though we think of Champagne as an iconically French product we learn from Sally’s contribution to this issue that the French initially considered the bubbles to be a flaw. This was primarily because the bottles tended to explode, and once one exploded it would cause a chain reaction and take out those adjacent. This hampered production obviously, and was expensive and unwelcome.
Bottles did somehow succeed in making their way to Great Britain and met with approval, so the first export market for champagne really was the UK. The British were to do their French neighbours another great favour. Having the most advanced glass making technology of the day, they had the capacity to make glass that could withstand the pressure within the bottles. (In the order of ninety pounds a square inch.)
With bottles that could take the strain, Champagne could be exported anywhere, but the British role in its success is largely forgotten.
The association of launching ships with a champagne send off is both old and new. Old in that it represents a tradition of sacrifice that harks back to ancient beliefs to do with seafaring and the hazards thereof. New in that it is thought that the first ship to be so ‘christened’ was the USS Maine in 1890. This attests to the ability to transport Champagne all that way. Being under under considerable pressure, it provided a better spectacle than more prosaic bottles of wine or spirits that had been used in the past. It also had associations of luxury and expense.
Judgement of Kingston.
by Jeff Keary.
To a chorus of popping sparkling wine bottles, the seventh iteration of the Judgement of Kingston set off with a bang at its customary location, the Marriot Residence Inn. This year, traditional method sparkling wines from Niagara went head to head with those from Prince Edward County.
From Niagara the contenders were Henry of Pelham, offering Cuvee Catherine, Tawse Winery with Spark 2017, and 13th Street Winery showcasing Blanc de Blanc 2020. Representing The County: Broken Stone’s Armour 2018, Huff Estates Cuvee Peter 2018 and Rosehall Run, with Blanc de Blanc 2017.
After careful consideration the judges, Jacky Blisson from Montreal, and Andrew McArthur from Toronto accompanied by County sommelier, Thierry Alcantara, pronounced Henry of Pelham to be the winner, with Huff Estates Winery, second and Broken Stone in third place. Once again the judge’s choice was endorsed by the popular vote in favour of Henry of Pelham.
Commenting, Dr Lubomyr Luciuk, the JoK chairman, said: “Our group is made up of volunteers and wine enthusiasts committed to promoting culinary tourism and highlighting the outstanding wines of The County compared with other great wine-making regions. As well we’ve always also tried to use this event to raise money for charities – this year, thanks to our supporting wineries, sponsors like the Frontenac Club, the VQA and our guests, we’ve raised $5,000 for the St Vincent de Paul Society of Kingston and $5,000 for the StoreHouse Food Bank in Wellington, PEC. In effect we’ve doubled our donations when compared to last year’s event. It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying way in which to celebrate the great autumn we are all enjoying while also supporting fellow citizens who need some help. From modest beginnings, seven years ago, we’ve turned this into Kingston’s premier wine-tasting event – not surprisingly, enthusiastic planning for JoK 2023 has already begun!”
For more information about previous Judgements and to learn more about JoK 2023 please check our website: judgementofkingston.ca
A Visit to the Frontenac Club
On the coolest day of winter so far I ascend the steps to the warm sanctuary of Frontenac Club, following up on a rumour of a secret stash of champagne. Upon opening the door, I encounter a gentleman named Arthur, not the doorman or the concierge, but the Frontenac Club’s historian. Now you know you’re somewhere fancy if an establishment has its own historian.
Naturally, Arthur is a repository of information: this grand edifice was built in 1845 as a branch of the Bank of Montreal at the time when Kingston was Canada’s capital city.
Banking activities occupied the first floor and the manager enjoyed the privilege of living on the second floor, with his (all male) staff confined to the attic portion of the building.
Rooms are named after famous guests, such as Lady Duff-Gordon, who Arthur describes as “the luckiest women in the world,” surviving both the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. Other notables include politicians Winston Churchill, and Harold Macmillan, opera singer, Mary Gardini, and the writer Michael Ondaatje.
A two year long restoration retained much of the building’s historic architectural detail allowing it to be appreciated by aficionados of cool interior design.
Front of house is the responsibility of Sarah Sanders, Alex Amey combines the roles of general management with that of sommelier, and Cayley Balint is the head chef.
Alex, a hospitality graduate from St. Lawrence, is now studying economics at Queen’s, has a family history in the hospitality industry…his grandfather opened the Four Seasons and was general manager of Glen Eagles in Scotland.
Sean Billing the managing partner was friendly with Alex’s grandfather and now he and Alex strive to make the Frontenac Club a ‘landing spot’ of Kingston’s hospitality. Involvement in the Judgment of Kingston is just one element in their community engagement.
And what of the secret stash of Champagne? Well its true, but you didn’t hear it from me, Alex does have an esoteric collection of bubbly liquids reserved for extra special occasions, some of which I persuaded him to allow me to photograph.
Drop in to the Bank Gastrobar and perhaps Alex will impart his knowledge and share some of these delightful magic potions with you.