The wine world often looks at Muscadet with disdain for its lighter body and subtlety of flavor. But for white wine lovers who care less about showiness and want something with the interplay of acidity with nutty, bread flavors and soft textures, this historic wine is a thrill. There is far more to this wine than there used to be, as it has continued to improve since the 1980s and seems to get better every year.
This week we discuss this westernmost area of Loire Valley, which lies along the banks of the river and its tributaries. We review Muscadet and the grape Melon — its storied history – from being a defiled grape in Burgundy (it was outlawed in 1567!), to finding its place in the Loire (albeit with a strange name), to moving from just a grape to be distilled to a legitimate wine that, at the top end, can age more than a decade.
Here are a few of the show notes that you may have missed:
Muscadet is not the name of the grape (that’s Melon de Bourgogne) or a place (that’s the Pays Nantais) but it is a huge part of the AOC system and there are many appellations named after it. The maritime climate in the Muscadet area makes it warmer than other parts of the Loire – the Gulf Stream, the river, and the humidity make for a more consistent temperature. But the perils of this area are many – rain, frost, ice storms, hail are all possible and can be devastating to the vines. As we mentioned, Muscadet is scattered across many areas – some of it is gently rolling hills near the river, much is in fertile flats near the estuary. The best areas are on the hills. This area was once a hotbed of volcanic activity. Soils vary here – granite and gabbro (a harder form of granite) make up the subsoils in the better regions, yielding complex wines. Gneiss, sand, silt, and gravel provide much-needed drainage – in this are with so much moisture the vines must stay dry! Lest you think this area is one-note, there are now producers like Domaine l’Écu, Jo Landron and Pépiere that make wines from multiple terroir to show their differences!
The grape, the wine, the appellations:
There is only one grape permitted in Muscadet: Melon de Bourgogne In the Pays Nantais, other grapes do grow — Folle Blanche, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot Noir The styles of the wines have changed over the years. Producers used to pick early but of late, they prefer to pick later to develop more flavor. This presents a tradeoff between fruit and complexity with higher acidities. Still, the ripeness is limited – there is a maximum alcohol for Muscadet of 12% ABV. Muscadet is best described as a wine that is salty, acidic with lemon, lime, chamomile, herb and gunflint aromas and flavors. With techniques like sur lie aging (to promote autolysis), bâtonnage (lies stirring), fermenting in oak barrels, and extended skin contact the wines acquire a soft, bready, creamy texture that is unique to this wine – it’s light yet has subtle dimension when made well. There are 4 main appellations:
Muscadet: Light-to-medium-bodied floral, fruity notes and good acidity. It can be very meh, as it’s often not grown on the best sites. Muscadet Sèvre et Maine: (sub AOC) 75% of output. This is the largest Muscadet appellation and it’s the home of the top wines. The area is where La Petite Maine and La Sèvre Nantaise rivers meet. It has much more dimension, flavor, and aroma than general Muscadet –there is more elevation, better soil types, and the wines are generally aged sur lie for more interest. We mention special terroirs/CRU Muscadet Sevre et Maine Clisson Muscadet Sevre et Maine Gorges Muscadet Sevre et Maine Le Pallet Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire: In the northernmost area, the quality and ripeness of the grapes varies based on vintage. Cooler years don’t bode well for this region! Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu: In the southwest around Grandlieu Lake, this wine is rich, full, and flowery with lower acidity but with good balance.
Top Producers: Pierre Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Pépiere, Jo Landron, Stéphane, Orieux, Domaine du Fief aux Dame, Domaine de l’Ecu
Other areas we mention:
Coteaux d’Anciens –reds and rosés Gamay, semi-sweet whites of Pinot Gris Fiefs Vendeens (+regional designation like Brem, Chantonnay, Mareuil, Pissotte, Vix are communes allowed): Chenin for whites, Pinot Noir or Cab Franc for reds Gros Plant du Pays Nantais: Folle Blanche with some Colombard
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