Limoux is the Languedoc's eccentric: sparkling wines and mountain whites from France's deep south. Thanks to the proactive kindness of the Anglo-Dutch Panman family of Ch Rives-Blanques, I got the chance to explore it recently. It's still challenging my imagination.

The vines of Roquetaillade and the wind farm (Image: Andrew Jefford)

Where is Limoux, first of all? Just to the west of Corbières, the Languedoc’s wildest and most rugged zone. Its vineyards occupy a major stretch of the upper Aude valley, lifting from the river in wingbeats of rock. It’s astonishing to think that some of Limoux’s fragrant, delicate sparkling wines come into being less than one marathon’s distance (supposing crows fly the marathon) from the crack-of-doom reds of Maury and Tautavel, grown in the Agly valley. But they do. Why the difference? Aspect, altitude, climate.

Limoux, like its northern neighbour Malpère, lies on a cusp. Two watery magnets meet and tussle polarities here: the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Rainfall is rarely less than 600 mm a year; a north-south river course delivers a paucity of south-facing slopes; the cold cers (north-westerly) wind is never far away. Above the lonely village of Roquetaillade, the vines ramp up to 500 m, as if they were trying to kiss the wind. (Turbines along the ridge kiss the wind day and night.) No vineyard in Limoux lies lower than 280m.

In a way, though, there is nothing at all eccentric about Limoux. The Aquitaine basin and the (relatively small) Languedoc plain aside, almost all of southern France is a vast, green upland. (Tripartite in form: it’s constituted by the Pyrenees, the Massif Central and the Alps.) Of France’s 96 metropolitan departments, only 47 have an average altitude of less than 250m, and the great majority of those lie in northern France. There are, by contrast, 24 departments with an average altitude of 500m or more, and almost all of them lie in the South of France. For truth to landscape, therefore, you could say that Limoux is the most typical appellation of the South of France. It’s just that no one else apart from the Limouxins troubles to make wine in the lonely, airy confines.

Skip ‘eccentric’, then; let’s just call Limoux singular. It has another near-singularity: the Mauzac grape, which it shares with Gaillac (putting the two regions on an ampelographical cusp). Locally, the Mauzac is known as Blanquette; indeed the first Limoux reference to Blanquette comes in the early C16, predating the first (C18) reference to Mauzac. It’s tangy, appley character doesn’t have universal appeal, so consumers have a choice: Blanquette de Limoux and the sweeter, lower alcohol Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale for Mauzac-lovers (the former is 90 per cent Mauzac and the latter pure Mauzac); or Crémant de Limoux for those who would like more varietal restraint and discretion. The rules are complex, but a Crémant here will never have more than 20 per cent Mauzac and need not contain any at all. Most Crémant is a Chardonnay-Chenin blend (with Chenin never exceeding 40 per cent of the blend), plus smaller amounts of Pinot Noir.

It’s a while since I tasted a bench of Limoux sparklers (sparkling wine accounts for over 90% of production), and I had a chance to sample 28 wines from assorted individual producers while at Rives-Blanques, and a couple from Calmel & Joseph since getting home. They left me startled. The Crémants in particular have surged in quality in the last few years. Are they now France’s best Crémants? Quite possibly. Are they France’s best-value Crémants? They must be.

In terms of absolute quality and packaging finesse, the Antech range is hard to beat: I was quickly running out of superlatives for its creamy, vinous 2012 Grande Cuvée and searching, refined 2011 ‘1860’ Brut; the 2012 Eugénie is biscuity and satisfying; and the 2012 Émotion rosé delicate, restrained and classy. Jean-Louis Denois’ non-vintage Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs was the best zero-sulphite wine I’ve tasted this year: pristine breadth and poise and not an off-note anywhere; while the 2011 Blanc de Blancs from Rives-Blanques was the pithiest, zestiest and most vital wine on the table. Mouscaillo’s NV Brut Nature was alluringly true to place, with its notes of fennel and mountain grasses; and the Clos des Demoiselles from J.Laurens was another wine of impressive finesse, length and complexity. Gérard Bertrand’s NV Code Rouge is a decent Crémant de Limoux in an alarming red bottle; perhaps we’ll see a subtler and more ambitious ‘prestige’ version one day.

Don’t miss out on the Blanquettes, though: barely less finesse, and a lot more sense of place. In addition to those of Antech, Rive-Blanques and Laurens, look out, too, for the fresh orchard flavours of Bernard Delmas’s NV Cuvée Tradition Blanquette and the much nuttier, leafier style of his 2009 Cuvée Mémoire Blanquette, aged in chestnut wood barrels. Alain Cavaillès’ 2011 Etincelle Originale, Domaine le Moulin d’Alon is another chewy, complex Blanquette, while the elegantly labelled Calmel & Joseph version is full of charming wild-flower lift. The Ancestrale wines, finally, are troublesome to make, but matchlessly refreshing : Antech’s NV Doux et Fruité, for example, is like drinking an essence of fresh autumn apple, seasoned with a little pear and strawberry.

Of course none of these wines are Champagne, and nor are they meant to be; in flavour and structure we are more than half-way to Catalonia, hence the alluring combination of breadth and freshness here, and the subtle aromatic hints of fennel, pear, hedgerow blossoms and freshly mown mountain hay. In contrast to most of France’s Crémant-producing regions, note, Crémant de Limoux and Blanquette de Limoux are made with their region’s finest grapes.

Written by Andrew Jefford