Sunday, September 16, 2007

Limoux & the start of the Corbières Death March

Darkness descended on our first day so we headed into the Old Town of Carcassonne, inside the fairytale fortress, for dinner. We were meeting a group of producers of the local sparkling wines, known as Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux. The Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) of Limoux extends just south of Carcassonne, with the town of Limoux at its center (well, duh). Here, the locals claim to have made the world’s oldest sparkling wines, figuring out the process at some of the Benedictine abbeys sometime in the early 1500s, even before Champagne. The famous Dom Perignon is said to have passed through and taken (stolen?) the knowledge with him to the north.

The Limoux AOC in relation to France

As in Champagne, three different types of grapes are authorized to be used in Blanquette, which is their prestige wine: Mauzac (which has to constitute 90% of Blanquette), Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. The resulting wine can have a light lemony or grapey taste, be slightly sweet, with a soft mouthfeel and end with a bit of nice crunchy acidity (from the Mauzac). Perfect for a summer’s day, but not overly complex.

Dinner was held at La Barbacane, one of the top restaurants in Carcassonne. Granted, there aren’t too many reliable places to eat as this is a very touristy town, but still, this place really stepped it up and impressed me. Our multi-course meal was matched to a variety of Crémants and Blanquettes, some of which weren’t that bad. I will admit, however, that I am more partial to real Champagne than to any facsimile from other parts of France (or the world for that matter). Yes, I am a bubbly snob. Sue me.

The next morning we visited a cooperative in the area, Sieur D’Arques, which makes some correcte (a typically lovely French term that sounds positive but that really means, at best, inoffensive or unexciting) wines. As the term implies, their products were technically OK, but there wasn’t much to get me too excited here.

The Disgorgement Line at Sieur D'Arques

We then hopped on our minibus and headed to the tiny town of Alet-les-Bains (known for its mineral springs), where we were greeted by the local trade group. They had organized a massive tasting of Limoux producers in a lovely hotel surrounded by manicured gardens, the centerpiece of which was a ruined cathedral whose arches were home to flowers and pigeons. After our tasting, we retired to a restaurant in the garden and had a wonderful lunch with the producers and their wares.

Aaaaah, a beautiful setting, a shining sun, friendly people, good food and lots of free alcohol: these are some of the things I live for.

We returned to Carcassonne with some free time on our hands, so I wandered around taking pictures of the medieval fortress and just enjoying our downtime. Later that afternoon we were driven to the town of Montredon for another tasting. No more sparkling wine, now we were heading deep into the land of red wine: it was time for Corbières!

The Corbières AOC is a large expanse stretching from Carcassonne south and east to the Roman city of Narbonne, on the Mediterranean Sea. Between Cathar castles and Romanesque abbeys, it’s quite a picturesque landscape, though we wouldn’t know this as we only saw hints of it between stops at massive tastings that left our palates abused, our feet aching and our teeth black.

The region’s production is mainly red wine (95%), which is generally rich, fruity, spicy, tannic and full-bodied. The Carignan grape is the principal varietal used, and it accounts for approximately 50% of the plantings. Soils around here are primarily limestone, marl and sandstone, and the weather tends to be dry and very warm. If this sounds like the Rhône, well, you’re right; there’s a reason most folks consider the Languedoc to be the little brother to that more famous region.

In any case, our little group of hapless wine buyers descended on the restaurant Chateau Saint Martin, where it was rumored we were to be fed a wonderful cassoulet, a hearty regional specialty and one of my favorite dishes (though moreso in winter than in the middle of a hot July). However, by the end of the tasting, I’d have settled for a Gray’s Papaya hot dog and a shot of Rumplemintz. My teeth were black, my tongue felt like I’d been scraping it through gravel, and my feet throbbed.

Now mind you, the wines did not suck. Indeed, many were quite good (except those where the owner proudly showed his bottle, saying he’d used 200% new oak – ugh), exactly what most Americans love when drinking inexpensive red wines. But therein lay the problem: these wines were not inexpensive, once the brutal exchange rate and other costs were added in. Most of these would end up on the shelves of your local retailer in the $16-25 range. Sure, it’s not that expensive, but when looking at two bottles, one from an area you’ve never heard of, another from the Cotes du Rhône, a name you’ve known and trusted for years, which would you choose?

We then sat down with the producers and their wines in the medieval restaurant, at which point I had the distinct pleasure of tasting a wonderful wine that I’d somehow missed during the tasting. Next to me, a thin, prim and proper woman who reminded me somewhat of an older Audrey Hepburn offered her wines to me, one with the unfortunate name of Agape, the other called La Mariole. They were from Domaine Adenis, and it was Madame Nadine Adenis who was my neighbor. A refugee from the television world, she’d settled in the area in 2000 with a degree in oenology and begun making wine a year later.

Both wines made me sit up, even after that marathon of Corbières, which says something about their quality. Mme. Adenis holds her yields way down (15 hectoliters/hectare for La Mariole, only a Vin de Pays!) and doesn’t abuse the oak, letting the wines shine on their own. They were full of deep red and black fruits that were balanced by minerals and acidity. To say they matched the cassoulet well would be a criminal understatement. I also couldn’t help but notice the modern labels, which wouldn’t hurt things. Lastly, I liked the price, so we chatted a bit and she agreed to send me some samples.

The cassoulet? Well, it was’t great, in fact, I wasn’t thrilled after all the hype. So be it. I make a better one in my little kitchen in New York.

Thus began what we ended up affectionately referring to as the Corbière Death March (thanks Chris!).

Pictures from these days can be found here, no need to sign in, just click the picture, though not all are mine. I'd like to especially thank Don Smith and Fred McElveen for allowing me to use some of their pictures.


1 comment:

Jason Miller said...

I am enjoying reading your blog, thanks.