On my quest to find out more about the famous Blanquette from Limoux, I stumbled across the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire. As I was expecting to visit a wine estate, it somewhat surprised me to discover that it was, in fact, this abbey who created the first sparkling white wine in the world, and therefore the perfect starting point for my Blanquette research!
Set among the rolling vineyards between Carcassonne and Limoux, it was the Blanquette that brought me to Saint-Hilaire. The village’s history dates back a long way to the Roman era, as shown by archaeological remains. It was named after the first bishop of Carcassonne, Hilaire, who lived in the 6th century. At the beginning of the 9th century, an abbey was erected on the spot where once Hilare had built a chapel. This Benedictine abbey was named after Saint-Sernin, the first bishop of Toulouse, who became a martyr. In 970, the relics of Saint-Hilaire moved to the abbey, changing its name to reflect the new patronage.
The monastery, as it appears today, originated in the 14th century. If you look carefully, you will notice the uneven form of the courtyard and surrounding arches. Being built on a rock made it impossible for the builders to create a perfect square. Stepping inside the 12th century church, I found the sarcophagus of Saint-Sernin, a masterpiece made of marble by the Maître de Cabestany. I then went up the stairs to discover the abbey’s cave. The legend goes that in the spring of 1531, the monks created a sparkling wine by accident or happy chance. However, this wine, called Blanquette, was much to the delight of the Lord of Arques, the Duke of Joyeuse, and in the end the whole of France. Keep in mind that all of this happened well before Dom Pérignon developed his method of making sparkling wines, better known as champagne…
The abbot’s home
Going back via the courtyard, I entered an elaborately decorated room called the abbot’s home. This private room served the head of the abbey and still contains the magnificent painted ceiling done in 15th century fashion. This ceiling ‘à la française’, renovated in the 19th century, shows various panels with episodes from life, local characters, sayings, and even some naughty scenes. Every panel on the end of the beams is different, and the more I looked, the more I discovered. From the Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire I continued my Blanquette quest, understanding a little more of this divine bubbly drink.