St. Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux France's Oldest Sparkling Wine It's the holidays! It's time to string the lights and light the candles. It's time for the festival and the feast, and the annual reminder that "Peace on Earth, Good will Towards Men" is the cause for rejoicing. Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or simply the birth of a New Year, the season calls for celebration. It calls for the gathering of family and friends, and the making of special holiday fare: cookie and cakes, seafood sauces and roasts. But that long, magical month between Thanksgiving and New Years also calls for a special wine. It calls for a wine of distinction, elegance and character to express the hope and festivity of the season. It calls for St. Hilaire, Blanquette de Limoux, the world's oldest sparkling wine. Although there is the tendency in America to erroneously call any sparkling wine Champagne, all that sparkles is not Champagne. Surely, all of us have had the bad fortune of toasting a bride and groom on their wedding day with a mean, nasty potion that the caterer told us was Champagne. You can be sure it was not, nor was it the fine, delicate bubbly of Blanquette de Limoux from St. Hilaire. Both Blanquette de Limoux and real French Champagne, the only true Champagne, come from France. Both wines are also made by the same painstaking method of vinification in the bottle known as "la methode champenoise" or "methode traditionelle". Yet, Blanquette de Limoux predates Champagne by more than 100 years. In the 16th century, long before the advent of technical wine equipment, temperature control or central heating, the slow fermentation of grapes in the cool, French autumn was often interrupted by winter's chill. Fermentation would stop completely and not begin again until the ambient temperature would rise anew in the spring. This delayed completion of fermentation is what is known as secondary fermentation. Consequently, the magic of sparkling wine is really the encapsulation of carbon dioxide during the final stages of fermentation, while the trick is to preserve the tiny streamers of carbon dioxide from dissipating. It is this trick that the abbots of St. Hilaire mastered, a century before their learned brothers in Champagne, by the introduction of heavy, specially blown bottles, stopped with wire-wrapped cork. Indeed, it is to St. Hilaire in Blanquette de Limoux that the 17th century Dom Perignon and his cohorts in Champagne are reputed to have traveled in order to learn the secret of containing the pressure of sparkling wine. Until that visit, the monks in Champagne sought to produce only still wine; all sparkling versions were considered an aberration and were commonly referred to as "vin diable", or the devil's wine, because of their propensity for exploding their normal bottles. Undoubtedly, it is to the good monks at the abbey of St. Hilaire in Blanquette de Limoux that Champagne and the world owe a huge debt of gratitude, a debt that seems to be largely unpaid. Today, Blanquette de Limoux cannot legally be called Champagne because it does not come from within the confines of Champagne, an ancient provence of France that lies far to the north of Blanquette de Limoux. And even though Champagne and Blanquette de Limoux also share the same traditional method of vinification and upbringing called "methode champenoise", Blanquette de Limoux must use the alternate description "methode traditionelle." This change was enacted several years ago to appease the wealthier, more celebrated Champagne growers who had the term banned in connection to any sparkling wine other than their own, even though Blanquette de Limoux is largely responsible for developing the "champagne method", a method it still practices with aplomb. However, if indeed every cloud has a silver lining, St. Hilaire, Blanquette de Limoux has two; it remains one of the world's finest sparkling wines, and it constitutes the highest quality value ratio of any sparkling wine in the world. Born on the undulating hills of a unique micro climate, not far from the old walled city of Carcassonne, St. Hilaire, Blanquette de Limoux is the secular, modern day legacy of an ancient art. In this picturesque corner of southern France, where southeastern facing slopes capture the perfect amount of sun, the art of the Benedictine monks comes to life in a flute. Today, St. Hilaire is a blend of the illustrious Chardonnay and the traditional Mauzac, a grape that is celebrated for its finesse and delicate bouquet. At harvest time the grapes are cut from the vines, but remain untouched until they are pressed. After undergoing their initial fermentation in vat at a constant low temperature, the resulting wine is racked until clear. After racking the finest vats of grapes are assembled for the final cuvee, or blend, and then placed in the bottle. The best cuvees are vintage dated. They spend several years in the bottle, gathering finesse and flavor. Prior to release, each bottle is placed in a "pupitre" or riddling desk where it will be turned by hand, one quarter turn daily until all the natural sediment rests against the tirage cork, which is then abruptly disgorged, taking with it all of the deposit and sediment. A small amount of wine is lost during the process of disgorgement, but it is replaced by a wine of the same cuvee, along with a little bit of dosage liquor which is made up of cane sugar dissolved in old fine wines from the finest vintages. It is this dosage for topping off that insures both balance and bubble. It also determines the ultimate designation of sweetness; Brut, Extra Dry, Demi Sec or Demi-Doux. Brut is the driest and finest of these designations. In its final stage of preparation, St. Hilaire receives its wire-capped cork, a reminder of its legendary contribution to all fine sparkling wines, Champagne included.