The Loire River stretches east to west across the upper midriff of France, like an old man’s belt pulled a little too high. As it flows, the white wine grapes grown along its banks progress from robust sauvignon blanc in Sancerre (which I wrote about last week), to opulent and sometimes sweet chenin blanc in Vouvray and Saumur, and finally to the crisp and lean melon de Bourgogne, the grape of Muscadet, near the Atlantic coast. (The region’s red wine grapes progress in opposite fashion, from delicate pinot noir to sturdier gamay and cabernet franc.)
Muscadet, made in the region around Nantes, near the Atlantic coast in Brittany, is an underappreciated wine. It has enough of a traditional reputation that several are available, but it lacks the cachet of the wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux or the Rhone, or even the celebrated Loire whites of Sancerre. All of which is to say muscadet can be a great value.
The wines taste of melons and tree fruit, with structure and mineral quality that hold up even in ripe vintages like those from 2009 and 2010, when the acidity is low. Most are made without oak influence. There is often a saline character reminiscent of the nearby sea, a flavor that has made muscadet a traditional partner to raw shellfish. They are also ideal partners to seafood salads and lighter fish dishes that tend toward the briny side of the spectrum.
Most French wines are named for their appellation: Burgundy, Champagne, Cotes-du-Rhone, etc. The main exception is Alsace, where the wines are labeled by grape variety (Riesling, pinot gris, auxerreois, Gewurztraminer). Muscadet follows neither convention; it is simply the name of the wine, not the region nor the grape. A specific area name is tacked on; most are labeled “Muscadet de Sevre et Maine,” reflecting their origin in the region around the Sevre and Maine rivers, two Loire tributaries. About 15 percent of the area’s wines are labeled as Muscadet de Coteaux de la Loire or Muscadet Cotes des Grandlieu. Muscadet is not a blended wine. It is made 100 percent from the melon de Bourgogne grape, considered a cousin of chardonnay.
Muscadet is certainly not muscatel, or any other sweet plonk.
Many muscadets are labeled “Sur Lie,” meaning the wine is aged on the yeast that settles when fermentation stops. This technique adds body and complexity to the finished wine. Modern winemaking techniques with strict temperature control for cold fermentation give most muscadets a bracing freshness. Although we see them young on our retail shelves, their structure can help them age for a decade or more. So if you find a forgotten bottle in your collection, don’t despair.
My favorite muscadet producer, whom I’ve written about before, is Guy Bossard, of Domaine de l’Ecu. Bossard produces three cuvees based on the type of subsoil in his vineyards: gneiss, orthogneiss and granite. The vineyards are farmed according to biodynamic principles — an extreme version of organic — and achieve a remarkable expression of their individual terroirs. These wines are another example of the importance of geology in wine appreciation. Bossard also makes a delicious sparkling wine called Cuvee Ludwig Hahn.
In my recent tastings, I was smitten by the Clos de la Fine 2009 from Jerome Choblet of Domaine des Herbauges. A Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu, it smells like a melon patch by the sea, less earthy than some, and yet its structure and minerality were apparent. It’s a beguiling wine, though I found it had a negative effect on conversation. It draws me inward to a beach in my imagination, the wine swirling in my glass like waves crashing against the shore. Now, where are those oysters?