Credit: © Carey Jones

When it comes to celebrations, high-roller dinners, and magnums to saber, Champagne pretty much has it on lock. And no one would argue that many of the wines from the Champagne region are among the most sophisticated in the world.

But Champagne isn't the only excellent French sparkler out there — or even the oldest. That title goes to Crémant de Limoux, from the southwest of France — Champagne's lesser-known predecessor. (Crémant refers to a particular style of French sparkling wine; de Limoux means, well, from Limoux.)

Some Champagnes are worth every penny. But others fetch a premium because they're labeled Champagne. Comparatively speaking, wines from other French regions can be a real bargain — which is why Crémant de Limoux is an ideal alternative for this time of year.

The history is a great talking point. "The monks of Saint Hilaire Abbey near Limoux perfected the winemaking method for sparkling wines around 1531," says Jean Baptiste Terlay, head winemaker at Gerard Bertrand, which produces a number of excellent sparkling wines. "When Dom Perignon" — yes, that Dom Perignon — "made a pilgrimage to Saint Hilaire Abbey, he was taught the method and experimented it on Champagne wines when he came back to Hautvillers Abbey." So the Dom himself learned from the monks in Limoux.

A view of the vines at Gerard Bertrand

And sparkling wine's origins in France's Southwest aren't coincidental. "Limoux was the very first place where sparkling wines were discovered," says Terlay, thanks to a confluence of essential elements: "A terroir located at the transition zone between oceanic and Mediterranean climates. Quite low temperatures appearing early in autumn stop the fermentation, until they restarted in spring, producing bubbles." That secondary fermentation is, in essence, what makes these sparkling wines sparkle.

Champagne fans will find interesting similarities in Crémant de Limoux, but contrasts as well. It's made largely from Chardonnay (40-70%), as well as Chenin Blanc (20-40%), Mauzac (10-20%), and Pinot Noir (up to 10%). Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two of the three grapes used in Champagne (along with Pinot Meunier).

"Crémant de Limoux sparkling wines combine freshness with rounded scents," says Terlay. "Chenin Blanc gives the wines a smooth and light acidity."

Vibrant, smooth, and bubbly? Sounds like a party wine to us.

What to Drink

Try these three wines from Gerard Bertrand, all available in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson Crémant de Limoux Brut

Er, that guy's American, right? "Thomas Jefferson was known to be a real fan of the Limoux wines," says Terlay. "A lot of bottles were found in his personal cellar after his death." His namesake wine is a perfect example of why we adore Limoux: crisp and lively, beautifully balanced and fine-bubbled.

Thomas Jefferson Crémant de Limoux Rosé

The lovely, light pink rosé version has more pronounced fruit but stays dry on the finish — just as drinkable as its counterpart.

Code Rouge, Blanc de Blancs

A party wine in the best of ways, Code Rouge is the ultimate easy drinker: sophisticated, likable, goes with everything. Don't get put off by the bottle's color — the wine itself is a pale and delicate white. Technically not a "Crémant de Limoux" due to the particularities of regulations, but we'll let it pass since it's a sparkling wine from Limoux. And because it's awesome.