Making Wine Sparkle in the Pyrenees
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, recognized the region’s potential and 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 southwest 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 is a Limoux native.
An energetic man who doesn’t show his 70 years, Calvel recently presented his wines 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 true to their terroir.
His non-vintage Le Moulin Blanquette de Limoux brut is a delight. It is made from 90 percent mauzac, with 5 percent each of chenin blanc and chardonnay. The 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.
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.
The wine works as an aperitif or with an entree like marinated salmon, light fish dishes or most white meats. It also pairs nicely with creamy cheeses as a dessert. The wine’s high acidity cuts through the fat of the cheese and produce a delightful combination of flavors.
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 said. 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 in the foothills of the Pyrenees that divide France and Spain. The location means ideal weather conditions: hot days and moderate nights, which contribute to the quality of the fruit.
About 75 percent 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.