Limoux is believed to be the first place in France to produce sparkling wines in the “traditional method” – by monks at the St Hilaire Abbey in 1531.
Four and a half centuries later an expert from the Champagne region, Michel Dervin, recognised the region’s potential and using methods from Champagne made sparkling wines using a local grape, mauzac. Dervin believed the terroir, combined with the region’s hot days and cool nights, had potential. He founded Domaine J Laurens in the village of La Digne d’Aval.
The mauzac grape ripens late, and has traditionally been picked when temperatures dropped in Limoux, in the south-west of France. This permitted slow fermentation that preserved residual sugar for a “natural” second fermentation in the spring, to create a lively sparkling wine.
Jacques Calvel purchased Domaine J Laurens in 2002 as a “retirement job”. Calvel was working as an entrepreneur in Switzerland, but a Limoux native.
An energetic man who looks much younger than his 70 years, Calvel presented his wines at the office of Cottage Vineyards to an exclusive group of wine lovers in Hong Kong. Calvel makes only sparkling wine. He wants to continue the style of the former owner and make wines that are true to their terroir.
His non-vintage Le Moulin Blanquette de Limoux brut is a delight. It is made from 90 per cent mauzac, with 5 per cent each of chenin blanc and chardonnay. Moulin is French for windmill. Farmers in the region used them to pump water and they still dot the horizon.
The green apple aromas come from the mauzac. The chardonnay adds finesse, while the chenin blanc gives a bite of acidity.
The Calvel sparkling has very fine bead. The bead is the name for the bubbles that spread from the bottom of the glass, and the finer the bead the finer the wine. This wine tastes of green apples, with a touch of molasses sweetness. It’s like walking through an apple orchard as the fruit ripens.
The feeling of the bubbles in the mouth – the technical term is mousse – offers a wine that is full-bodied and yeasty, with a lovely tang of lemon zest. Around the edge of the wine can be found a beautiful “collerette” – loosely defined as a lace collar of froth at the top of the wine, a sign of a well-made wine.
The wine could be served at any stage of a meal. It would be wonderful as an aperitif, or with an entrée like marinated salmon, light fish dishes, or most white meats. It would also pair nicely with creamy cheeses as a dessert. The wine’s high acidity would cut through the fat of the cheese and produce a delightful combination of flavours.
Calvel runs a small family-based operation. He said the aim was to find the balance between the grape’s acidity and its natural sugars. “The levels depend on the date of the harvest.” He always picks the earliest of any estate in the region and based on the tasting I attended manages to extract the best combination.
It helps that his estate is 300 metres above sea level, in the foothills of the Pyrenees which divide France and Spain. The location means he gets ideal weather conditions: hot days and moderate nights, which contribute to the quality of the fruit.
About 75 per cent of Calvel’s wines are exported, mostly to the United States. He plans to offer wines in the Asian region as soon as he can find an agent.
* Published in China Post, 7 June 2012, page 10, under the headline “Limoux grapes make sparkling wines sparkle”. Find a link here.