What was it that drew our wine correspondent Jim Walker to the fabulous wines of Limoux? Was it the affable vineyard owners, the magnificence of the Pyrenees or, just possibly, an adorable little Irish Springer spaniel named Bruno?
Hélène and I first met Caryl and Jan Panman, owners of Château Rives-Blanques in 2006 at a trade show in Cannes. We loved their crisp white and sparkling wines at first sip. A year later we were reintroduced by our mutual friend and their nearby vineyard neighbour Graham Nutter, owner of Château Saint Jacques d’Albas. The memory of those wonderful wines and the Panman’s engaging personalities prompted us to visit them on our next trip to France.
Accordingly, a few months later, we headed out one early spring morning from near Avignon towards Limoux, a three hour drive to the west. The last few kilometres took us around the medieval citadel of Carcassonne, then south past the enchanting town of Limoux and finally up to the estate located on a 350 metre high plateau ideally suited for premium grape-growing.
We were enthusiastically greeted by Bruno, the Panman’s irrepressible little Springer spaniel as soon as we got out of our car. It would be hard to imagine a more impressive welcome. We eventually managed to pull ourselves away and reintroduce ourselves to Caryl and Jan once Bruno had completed his astonishing repertoire of tricks.
The Panmans and Château Rives-Blanques
Caryl was originally from Ireland while Jan hailed from the Netherlands. They lived and worked in a dozen countries on four continents before being seduced by Limoux’s wines and its beautiful countryside. They acquired their 30 hectare estate (22 under vine), in 2001 and had been intimately involved in every aspect of their wine-making miracle. Their facility with languages and winning ways made them particularly proficient at sales. That all ended last year when son Jan-Ailbe, armed with several degrees including one in wine-making from the University of California, Davis, took over the helm. His sister Xaxa provides able assistance with both the sales and marketing activities.
Château Rives-Blanques has long been known for its environmently-friendly practices and was amongst the first vineyards in France to be granted the Agriculture Raisonnée accreditation by the Ministry of Agriculture, confirming the ecological honesty and integrity of the way they grow their grapes and manage their lands. A happy combination of altitude and brisk summer winds lends a helping hand by keeping unwanted pests at bay naturally. They never use chemical fertilizers, and all vine cuttings, grape pips and skins left over from the pressing are ploughed back into the soil.
Festive sparklers and refreshing still whites simply don’t get much better than those that come from Château Rives-Blanques in the woefully under-appreciated AOC Limoux appellation of South-West France. But, the region and particularly this winery are very much worth knowing. As the noted wine writer Jancis Robinson recently opined: “The Panman family go from strength to strength.”
For centuries Limoux has produced white wines that sparkle naturally after a second fermentation in the bottle. They became known as Blanquette de Limoux. Blanquette simply means ‘white’ in the Occitan language. Locals claim that fermentation in the bottle was developed here long before it was practised in Champagne; dating the production of cork-stoppered sparkling wines at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire from 1531.
The order at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire was Benedictine. Dom (Pierre) Pérignon (1638-1715), who according to myth invented the méthode Champenoise, was a Benedictine monk and speculation has it that members of the order brought the secret with them when they migrated north. There is much debate over which area made the first bubbly, but there can be no argument about which produces the best marketers … a bottle of the delicious Blanquette de Limoux from Château Rives-Blanques is about $26.00, while a bottle of Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon currently sells for $231.95 at the LCBO!
In 1993 the AOC Limoux appellation was revised to include Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in addition to the traditional Mauzac (9), also called Blanquette. Mauzac is a grape of the Renaissance, referred to in Antiquamareto’s ‘Livre de Raison’ of 1525, but although once widespread, it is grown today only in two appellations: Limoux and Gaillac. Vinification in oak is mandatory. The region’s vineyards are so much higher, cooler and further from the Mediterranean influence than any other Languedoc appellation that the INAO authorities classify it as part of the Atlantic-influenced South-West France rather than as part of Languedoc-Roussillon.
As the Panmans note: “We are proud to say that every one of our vintages without exception has been selected by the Guide Hachette — ‘This estate continues to astonish us’ — and is included amongst ‘the best bottles of the millésime’ by La Revue du Vin de France.”
Blanquette de Limoux
After touring the vineyards with Jan and Bruno, we joined up with Caryl for lunch in their tasting rooms. Of course everything began as it should with a nicely chilled bottle of their Blanquette de Limoux . Blanquette de Limoux is the oldest appellation in Languedoc-Roussillon (declared in 1938), and one of the first in France. It has the lowest permitted maximum yield of any sparkling wine in the country, and is made exclusively from hand-harvested grapes. Our specimen was crafted from 90 per cent Mauzac (minimum mandated) and 10 per cent Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. It was a beautiful luminous light yellow colour and was full of spritely effervescence. The deep nose mixed fruity notes (peaches, apricots and lemon zest) with lightly toasted touches of vanilla. The mouth was seductively round, full and deep with a lingering citrus finish. It went wonderfully with the crisp green salad, Dutch cheeses and charcuterie that Caryl had prepared for us.
After lunch we bade Caryl, Jan and Bruno a fond farewell, promising to keep in touch and to promote their splendid wines to our wine club back home (they were very well received). We caught up with them in subsequent years at various wine shows throughout southern France. By the way, Caryl was a founding member of ‘Les Vinifilles’, an association of female winegrowers of the Languedoc and Roussillon. These spirited women would host their own wine tasting events at the exhibitions … extravaganzas definitely not to be missed.
We returned to Limoux a few years later after a short holiday in the Dordogne. It was a lovely spring day and Bruno greeted us with his customary gay abandon and affection. Caryl and Jan had prepared a marvellous alfresco lunch on the stately vineyard grounds. Graham Nutter and an impressive number of his wines joined in the festivities. It was a grand afternoon, one we will always remember.
Shortly after our visit, Château Rives-Blanques lost its best salesman ever. Bruno, who charmed every visitor to the Panman’s tasting room with his winning smile, had passed away at the ripe old age of 17. He was immortalised on Decanter magazine’s inside-back-cover as one of its Top Dogs (“the best nose”), but it was a customer who said it best. She wrote in their guest book, “I love your wines. But I love Bruno more.”
Bacchus, a handsome yellow lab has taken on the greeting duties at Château Rives-Blanques where all of the Panmans stand ready to welcome visitors to their splendid domaine. Do drop by if ever you are in the area.
PS: I invite you to visit my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club to find out about the delicious wines from the Southern Rhône that we have (and will have) on offer.
PPS: After this story appeared we heard from Jan who writes:
What a wonderful article, Jim, thank you so much! That is most kind of you… and very complimentary too!
We have a new receptionist-in-waiting: Benson. He is so sweet. He has completely won us all over, even Bacchus! You will absolutely fall in love with him when you meet him …