Mauzac: Obscure French grape has notable role in wine history

Mauzac: Obscure French grape has notable role in wine history
The Globe and Mail

Mauzac is one of those grapes with an implied question mark in its name. As in: “Mauzac? What’s that?” Obscure though it may be, it’s also one of the most historically significant varieties in wine. Because, without mauzac, we might not have Champagne.

Grown mainly in the Limoux and Gaillac districts of the sprawling Languedoc region of southwest France, it’s best known as the chief component in blanquette de Limoux, a bottle-fermented sparkling wine that traces its roots back more than a century before the birth of its much more famous northern counterpart, Champagne.

More properly called mauzac blanc, it’s a white variety that may (or may not) be related to the even more obscure dark-skinned mauzac noir, with which it shares little taste resemblance. Mauzac blanc’s flavour in fact shares more in common with a tart green apple – bitter skin and all. The resemblance can be uncanny, particularly in well-made wines pressed from grapes that have been allowed to mature to sufficient ripeness. That’s true not just of sparkling wines but also of the harder-to-find still wines made from the same grape.

Credit for mauzac’s pioneering role in fizz goes to the monks of the Abbey of St-Hilaire in Limoux. In the early 1500s, long before temperature-controlled tanks made their debut, the fermentation process would often stall as yeasts grew dormant in the cold autumn temperatures of the region’s high elevation. Impatient, the thirsty monks would bottle the sweet, half-fermented juice anyway. As weather warmed up in spring, the yeasts would reawaken and begin feeding off residual grape sugars, producing the carbon dioxide responsible for sparkling wine’s bubbles.

The holy men had a geographical advantage over other cool-climate regions of the day for their serendipitous discovery: access to cork. Just over the Pyrenees from northern Spain, a rich source of cork-oak trees, they could seal their bottles securely and trap the dissolved bubbles thanks to the strong elastic pressure of the bark, versus wood and other closures common at the time.

Today, blanquette de Limoux and its regional bubbly cousin, crémant de Limoux, are crafted in the more modern fashion perfected by producers in Champagne. They pick their grapes earlier to preserve more natural acidity and produce a conventional, dry, still wine to begin with. Once in bottle, the base wine is spiked with a solution of sugar and yeast, then sealed under pressure with a simple crown cap. After a period of maturation in contact with the spent yeast cells, which provide creamy richness and heady aromas of bread or brioche, the bottle is uncapped and the wine separated from the yeast sediment (in a process known as disgorgement) before the familiar mushroom-shaped cork gets applied and secured with a wire cage.

Blanquette de Limoux is made with at least 90 per cent mauzac, with the remainder coming from chardonnay or chenin blanc or both. It’s my preferred fizz from the region, partly because of its rustic, subtly earthy character, delicate body and fresh overtones of grass and flowers – along with that unmistakable apple core. Crémant de Limoux, while made in the same way, is crafted in a more internationally recognized style that bears a closer resemblance to Champagne because of its grape mix, which is dominated by chardonnay and chenin blanc, with mauzac and sometimes pinot noir in minority supporting roles. (Champagne relies on chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.)

Much harder to find is blanquette méthode ancestrale. It’s a throwback to the past, made entirely from mauzac more or less the way the monks did it – by bottling midway through fermentation to trap the original yeast and grape sugars. Fresh, fruity and moderately sweet, these wines are akin to moscato d’Asti, the gently crackling northern Italian wine, with alcohol as low as 6 per cent.

Quality producers of blanquette and crémant de Limoux with fairly wide distribution include J. Laurens, Antech and Delmas. Sparkling wines from the region tend to cost much less than Champagne, often bargain-priced at $17 to $22 in Canada.

Mauzac? Let’s remove the question mark and pop a cork to an underappreciated wine and piece of history.