June 2012 – Before leaving the US, I read several articles on the Cathars and their unusual and tragic history in the Languedoc-Roussillon area of France. Therefore, I was anxious to visit some of their territory, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Route of the Cathars coincided with my planned visits to the wine towns of Limoux and Maury. (Wine was introduced into this region in 600 B.C. by the Phoenicians and Greeks.)
The Cathars were an usual sect of Christians who were vegetarians and believed in reincarnation. Some of the ancient rumors – picked up by Dan Brown in his book, The Da Vinci Code and those following – suggest that Jesus Christ actually came to this region of France with Mary Magdalene and taught the local people Christianity with a splash of Buddhism based on his travels through India. Whether this is true or not, the Cathars thrived for hundreds of years until they were exterminated by the church as heretics in the early 1300’s. The Knights Templar, also originally from this region, met a similar fate around the same time period (1314) when the Church decided they were becoming too powerful and had many of the tortured and killed – even though they protected many Christians on their journey to the holy land.
Carcassonne – Medieval City of the Cathars
The main legacy of the Cathars is a series of beautiful medieval castles and cities throughout Southern France – the most famous of which is Carcassonne. I visited here several years ago and wanted to take my family to see the oldest intact medieval city in the world. It is truly amazing the first time you see it from a distance rising up with its many tower, turrets and great double walls.
From our apartment in Collioure, it took 1.5 hours to drive to Carcassonne on A9 – toll freeway. We arrived early – around 9:50 and were able to find parking close to the entrance. The city itself is free to walk around, but you must pay for parking as well as the chateau tour – should you decide to take it. We wandered the narrow streets of the amazing medieval city, stopping to shop in the many stores filled with knight and princess gear, complete with swords. When we arrived at the church, we were blessed to encounter a group of monks singing in harmony that echoed beautifully off the ancient gothic walls. Later we climbed the outside walls to the ramparts and gazed out across the new city below, and then stopped to have an apricot crepe. There are many restaurants in the old city serving cassolette – the specialty of the region – several providing small delicious samples to tempt you. In hindsight, we should have stayed there to eat lunch, but we decided to push on towards Limoux.
Limoux – Home of Blanquette Sparkling Wine and the Mauzac Grape
We left Carcassonne around noon to drive to Limoux (20 kilometers away). I assumed that since it is such a world-famous wine town that it would be beautiful and set-up for tourists. Unfortunately none of this is true. Limoux appears to be run down and neglected as if no one has spent any money on the town for decades. Yet in terms of wine regions, it is so old and famous, I’m surprised they didn’t qualify for a Unesco world heritage region like Tokay in Hungary.
Regardless, we wound our way through the confusing tiny streets towards “Centrale” – never once seeing a sign for the tourist office. Eventually we encountered the main square with a beautiful fountain with no water. It started to rain and became even more depressing. However, we made our way to a small café called La Concept. There we encountered very friendly service, free internet, and huge, comforting bowls of cassoulette filled with beans, pork, and duck. I had this with a small coup of Blanquette – not a great match, but it was still quite lovely.
After lunch we pulled our umbrellas out and went in search of the tourist office. We found it half an hour later hidden in a back corner of the town. Once more we encountered much warmth and friendliness in the tourist office, and left with directions to several wineries and many brochures.
After getting lost several times, we finally arrived at L’oustal Anne de Joyeuese Winery just outside the old town. This was one of those recommended by the tourist office. Again we found a very friendly staff, and I was able to taste 3 sparkling wines, though I was hoping for more. Later I found they did have more, but it was a communication disconnect. Turns out the place is a large cooperative and they seem to specialize more in dry still wines with many merlots, cabs, and syrahs – as well as gasoline-type pumps of white, rose, and red wine sold by the liter and pumped into your own container. Very amazing by US standards.
Of the three sparkling wines I tasted, the first was a NV Blanquette de Limoux (6 euros), which by law, must contain at least 90% Mauzac grapes, but can also include chardonnay and chenin blanc. The Mauzac grape is unique to the region and has a fruity, yet musty taste. It is supposedly the grape that was used when sparkling wine was first discovered in Limoux by a monk in 1531 – several years before Champagne. Because of this Limoux is considered to be the home of the oldest brut in the world. They still make wine here using the Methode Ancestrale, which involves fermenting the grapes in tank/barrel and then transferring to a bottle when there is still sugar left in the wine. Once in the bottle, the wine starts a secondary fermentation – usually in March when the weather warms up and the yeast left in the wine start consuming the sugar. This results in a sparkling wine which may still be a little sweet and has a low alcohol – around 7%.
The second wine I tried was a Limoux Cremant, which by law must contain a minimum of 40% chardonnay and 20% chenin, but no more than 90%. Other grapes which may be added include Mauzac and pinot noir. The cremants are made using the traditional method (also called methode champenoise) which includes secondary fermentation in the bottle but only after the base wine has been fermented to dryness. Sugar and yeast are added to create the bubbles, and a final dosage determines sweetness level. The Cremant I tried was very lovely and well priced at 6.50 euros, but my favorite was a 2008 Vintage Antech Heritage Brut Millesime Cremant de Limoux for 10 euros. It was very creamy with tiny bubbles and a toasty flavor with light pear notes. I ended up buying two bottles, and wishing I had more time in Limoux. The next time I visit, I must make advance arrangements so I can experience a proper tasting and visit the vineyards and cellars.
Renne Le Chateau and Its Unique Legends
Afterwards we drove 20 minutes to the mystical village of Renne le Chateau. This is high in the mountains along the Route of the Cathars, and attracts many tourists because of its stories of lost gold, Templar Knights, alien spaceships, a corrupt priest, and the last hiding place of Mary Magdalene and her four children. It is perched on a high hill with magnificent views in all directions. It had stopped raining and turned blue and sunny when we arrived, so we wandered around the few small shops and visited the Church of Mary Magdalene with its unusual devil carving. It is a very special place, and definitely worth a stop. Also, several very cute looking restaurants in town. Next time I would prefer to eat lunch here.
The Village of Maury & Magnificent Wines
We continued down the Route of the Cathars along the river Aude and found the road to be more twisty as we headed deeper into the Pyrenees on our way back towards Perpignan. At some places the rock wall came down so far over the road that large trucks had to stop and back up in order to pass. After driving about an hour through charming little villages we came to Maury – another famous wine village for Vin Doux Natural (sweet dessert wines with fermentation stopped by the addition of alcohol – usually 15.5%). We stopped at Les Vignerons de Maury – another cooperative, but an excellent one with a professional tasting room, large displays and very capable staff.
We started with the AOC Maury Blanc which seemed very sweet and simple. Next we tried the AOC Maury Ambre which was one of my favorites. It was made of white Grenache but oxidized so that it tasted of dried apricots, orange and carmel. The price of 7.80 euros for a full bottle was amazing. I also tried a Rancio tuile version which was even more complex, but I ended up buying a half bottle (so it would fit in my luggage) of the Vendange 2011 AOC Maury Grenache for 8.50 euro. It was a deep ruby red and tasted of fresh berries and spices.
The vineyards of Maury are farther inland from the ocean compared to Banyuls and appear to be on flatter land (not the steep terraced slopes of Banyuls). Some experts say that because of this Maury wines are bigger and more tannic than Banyuls.
A short time after Maury we reached A9 and were back in Collioure by around 6:30 so we stopped in the town and had a pastis on the beach before heading back to our apartment. For dinner we had a quiche Lorraine, salad, and of course, more cheese, salami and wine.