Blanquette de Limoux, an undercelebrated sparkling wine from southern France, obviously lacks the cachet of Champagne. I'd wager it has never stained the Escalade upholstery of bling-happy rap artists. You won't find it frothing up at a Grand Prix podium shower ceremony. Marilyn Monroe did not bathe in the stuff (as she reportedly did with Piper-Heidsieck). But Blanquette can claim bragging rights on one score: It came first, chronologically speaking.
More than a century before Dom Perignon supposedly invented Champagne (he didn't; he merely refined its production), monks at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire in Limoux, 700 kilometres from Champagne, were deliberately crafting fizzy wines using a technique for which the Champenois would later take credit.
There's a good reason Limoux came first. Those monks had easy access to cork, a snug seal that locked in pressure. Though standard today, cork was far less common in the 1530s. Limoux lies just over the Pyrenees from northern Spain, a rich source of cork oak trees.
In the cool, high elevation of the region, wines often would undergo stalled fermentation in autumn. Yeasts, which thrive in balmy temperatures, hibernate as the mercury drops, curbing their appetite for natural grape sugars. In their thirst, the monks couldn't wait to funnel their half-fermented juice into flasks. As the weather warmed in spring, the organisms stirred back to life and started feeding anew on the leftover sugar, producing magical carbon dioxide. Pop went the flasks, frothing all over the cellar floor.
Until, that is, the monks embraced newfangled cork, an elastic bark that provided a tighter seal than hard wood and other materials then widely in use. Blanquette de Limoux, probably the first sparkling wine of France, soon became the toast of Paris; the Johnny-come-lately producers in Champagne, though, got all the glory as they later learned to deliberately and consistently induce refermentation by adding fresh yeast and sugar into bottles of dry wine.
Blanquette is the local Occitan term for "white," though in this case it specifically refers to a bubbly chiefly made from mauzac, a grape with an uncanny flavour of green apple. The first wine below seems like a good way to lead off a selection of whites to inaugurate the coming warmth of spring – a good time for yeast and a revitalizing time for winter-weary Canadians.
Domaine J. Laurens Le Moulin Brut Blanquette de Limoux (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
The yeasty, green-apple aroma foreshadows the palate in this bone-dry bubbly from southern France. A rounded, oily texture also carries hints of baked apple and lemon curd. Available in Ontario.
Kistler Vine Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 (California)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $89.95
Kistler consistently turns out some of the finest chardonnays outside Burgundy (and most Burgundian producers should envy its track record). As for the price, ouch – that's supply-and-demand for you, though this glorious bottle tends to sell for just as much, if not more, south of the border, especially when you figure in state sales taxes. Glorious in its balance, the Vine Hill Vineyard shows satisfying fullness, with a ripe midpalate of tropical and stone fruit, infused with well-integrated toasty oak, vanilla and flintiness. Try it with substantial fish dishes, such as salmon. Available in Ontario.
The Foreign Affair Riesling 2009 (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Niagara winemaker Ilya Senchuk dried 20 per cent of the grapes for two months in the appassimento style traditional in Italy's Veneto region. The technique added richness and sugar concentration to the must and the result is captivating. Slightly sweeter than offdry, this white carries an icewine-like flavour of tinned apricot and ripe peach, balanced attractively by lime-like acidity. Perfect for Indian curries. $27.40 in Manitoba.
Ferruccio Sgubin Ribolla Gialla 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
Ribolla gialla enjoyed a storied past in northeast Italy and Slovenia. The 14thcentury poet Giovanni Boccaccio listed it, unflatteringly, with vernaccia and malvasia among the "costly wines" of gluttonous excess. (He also mentioned prosaic trebbiano in the same context, so what did he know, in the end?) After a century of decline to obscurity, it's on the rise again. This one hints at muscat-like perfume, with lively underripe peach acquiring vanilla and nuttiness from a light touch of oak. Splendid on its own or with light seafood. Available in Ontario.
Liberty School Chardonnay 2011 (California)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
This is full-bodied, ripe and classically Californian chardonnay, with smooth toffee and caramel caressing the tropical fruit – as in a pineapple sundae. Crisp acidity provides lift on the finish. Try it with rich fish. $21 in Sask., $19.99 in Man., $19.95 in Que., $23.29 in N.B., $21.99 in N.S., $21.49 in Nfld.
Bollini Pinot Grigio 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $16.95
Bone-dry and vibrant, this is a regular favourite in Canada, with elegance and subtle depth that stand in contrast to less expensive grigios. Expect hints of pear melon and Chablis-style chalkiness. Ideal for grilled shellfish and salads. $18.99 in B.C., $16.68 in Man.
Varanda do Conde Alvarinho Trajadura Vinho Verde 2011 (Portugal)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
Light and dry, yet with good length and oily texture for its weight, this white offers up lemon, floral and herbal nuances that culminate in a satisfyingly tangy finish. Ideal for shellfish and salads. Available in Ontario.
Mt. Boucherie Ehrenfelser 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $15.99 in B.C.
Ehrenfelser was long reputed to be a German cross of riesling and silvaner dating back to 1929. Oops! According to the recent book Wine Grapes, published by Ecco, DNA evidence shows that silvaner was not part of the love story. We don't know which variety did the deed with riesling, but it matters little now. The grape, which has been in decline in Germany, landed in British Columbia in the 1960s and is now produced by several wineries there. Here it's dry, light and highly aromatic, with notes of white table grape, grapefruit zest and honey. Great for grilled pork chops or salads. Available through mtboucheriewinery.com.