When you think sparkling wine, you might think of Champagne or Prosecco and the respective areas of northern France and Italy where they’re from. However, the title of “Birthplace of Sparkling Wine” is hotly contested by a lesser-known region in the south of France, the Aude Valley.
Situated along the Mediterranean, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, this region is home to dozens of wineries that specialize in bubbly. Talk to any of their owners, and they’ll tell you that long ago, when the countryside was a religious battlefield, fortified monasteries sat on the top nearly every mountain. The monks there lived simple lives and got by selling whatever they could make at provincial markets. Some focused on honey and mead, others on simple breads. One monastery that specialized in wine was particularly pious, and the monks were too busy praying to properly attend to their barrels, allowing their forgotten wines to go through the fermentation process a second time.
Sparkling wines use the same grapes as some traditional reds and whites, but go through a second fermentation process that takes them from flat to bubbly. Today, this process is pretty scientific, and involves changing temperatures and monitoring the pressure of the stainless steal containers in which the wine ferments. Back in the day, seasonal temperature changes and wooden barrels stored in cave-like basements could get lucky and end up with the same result, though less consistently. Legend has it, once the Aude Valley monks discovered how to make sparkling wine, prayer fell second on their priority list.
While the true birthplace of sparkling wine is hard to pin down, the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire claims to be the first place in the Aude Valley to make it. Located off the beaten path, this monastery turned abbey turned museum brings you back in time. You can see where barrels of wine sat, waiting for the perfect moment all those years ago and a gorgeous courtyard where it must have been sipped. Plus, you can buy a bottle made the old fashioned way by the abbey, though it is now made off-site, and visit the little village center just outside the abbey’s walls.
If you want to go deeper into the 13th century, visit Carcassonne. This fortified city looks like something out of a history book, though inside is arguably more exciting. The stores and restaurants inside vary from medieval-themed to modern, and strolling around them takes a solid day. Travelers can check out the innermost castle, La Cité, to learn more about the fortress’s history before finding a seat outside to sip some local bubbly and snack on a local favorite like melted goat cheese salad or wild boar.
Another great day trip in the valley is Perpignan. This city mixes modern storefronts with ancient buildings. The Perpignan Cathedral and the Palace of the Kings of Majorca will bring you back to when this region was highly sought after by France and Spain. The influence of these two countries can be seen in the food and the culture of the city, which is proud to be part of the Catalan Region today. Be sure to visit one of Perpignan’s outdoor markets for fresh, local food and goods before traveling south to one of the seaside towns.
More focused on the region’s wine than its history? There are plenty of small, local wineries in the valley. My personal favorite, Salasar, has a tiny storefront in the small village of Campagne-Sur-Aude. Open to the public a couple days a week for informal tastings, this store also serves as the bottling plant for the company’s whole operation. If you’re looking for more of a wine tour, the drive from Limoux to Perpignan takes you past lots of wineries, and gives you a great view of the mountains and the Regional Park of the Catalan Pyrenees, Le Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes.
Regardless of what brings you to the Aude Valley, know that you’re trip will be unique. While the region is technically in the south of France, it isn’t as well known as other areas in le Midi like the French Riviera or Provence. The coastal cities get crowded in the summer, but once you get a little inland, everything slows down. Bustling outdoor markets wind down to one-man village shops, long highways become narrow cobblestone streets, and the sounds of the city drop away to reveal the sounds of nature. It is a place for those looking to explore, relax, and taste some of the original sparkling wines.