Muscadet: The Wine That's Lost Its Way

davies wakefield | wine uncorked |aug. 2017

When I was a young man in the United States Navy, I travelled through New York City and Grand Central Station to get home from my duty stations in New London, Connecticut, and Bainbridge, Maryland. This was right at the dawn of the jet age, when the fastest and most reliable form of transportation was by train. With a few exceptions, being stationed on our NE Atlantic coast meant that to travel west (to Chicago where my parents lived) you had to go to Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Since I always shipped my sea bag and personal effects by another anachronism (The Railway Express Agency), I had a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. I always stopped at the barbershop in Grand Central Station to get a haircut and a shave. The shave was given with the old fashioned straight razor; it was quick, close and followed by a steaming hot towel that I thought would melt my face. The shave lasted for days after, and would last until I could get home. The best way to get to Chicago was on the Twentieth Century Limited, which left at 6 p.m. from Grand Central and arrived at the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago at 9 a.m. the next morning. In those days, there was one place to go while waiting for the train and that was the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant on the lower level at Vanderbilt Avenue and 42nd Street. In business continuously since 1913, for a couple of bucks, a dozen Blue Points and a glass of Muscadet could make the afternoon go by quickly. In the late '60s the only wines available for oysters were Chablis and Muscadet. The development of vineyards in California, South America, Australia and Oregon were still about 20 years down the road. The crisp, seaside tang of Muscadet easily washed down the fatty oysters and demanded another glass. However, just as the railroads didn't see the jet age coming, Muscadet did not see the growth explosion of the worldwide wine community that had already started in the late 1960s in Napa Valley.

Muscadet is produced from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, which originated in Burgundy, but flourishes in the maritime soils of extreme western Loire Valley. It is hard to resist the idea of Muscadet as Neptune's Vineyard. Nowhere is the equation as simple or appetizing. Brittany provides the fruits of the sea; the vineyards clustering south and east of Nantes provide oceans of the ideal white wine. The Melon grape is an early ripener in the thin stony soils, sometimes as early as late August or early September. Muscadet (or Melon) has low natural acidity that makes the juice and wine susceptible to oxidation when in contact with air. To avoid oxidation, the local tradition is to leave the new wine in its tank or barrel lying on its own lees (dead yeast cells). This process is called sur lie aging. The wine is racked straight into the bottles without any filtering which often results in a bit of dissolved CO2 in the wine which gives the wine a slight spritz (a note to all you Moscato drinkers that put sparkling water in your wine).

Muscadet exported 2.2 million cases — 40 percent of its production in 1989, but the rest of the world had changed dramatically by then. Australia had introduced their version of Chardonnay, which had tasty flavors of pineapple and was taking market share from the price niche that Muscadet was operating in. A severe frost in 1991 started the downward plunge that reduced vineyard acreage from 13,000 hectares to 8,057 hectares today, nearly a 40 percent drop. The expansion during the boom years had led to many poor quality wines reaching international markets. In 1994 the local wine authorities tightened the quality regulations in order to staunch the bleeding, but it was too little and too late. They did take the first step toward recovery by tightening the sur lie requirements, which improved the taste of the wine. Faced with the imminent death of an appellation that had its place both as an aperitif and as a satisfying wine with which to wash down fresh and simply prepared fish and seafood, the vintners took action.

The producers agreed that two key factors influenced the quality of the wines; extended lees aging and identifying certain soil types were the way to go. It has taken 15 years to get the wines back to world-class quality. Decanter Magazine, which hadn't reviewed Muscadet since 1990, recently tasted 113 wines and found that 65 percent of them rated over 90 points with three rated exceptional (98-100). The tasting panel agreed that the relationship between the soil, grape and lees was the distinctive mark of the wines.

Muscadet is aged in large shallow cement underground vats. The usual aging period used to be 17 months, but the vintners are now extending this aging process to 24 months and some have stretched the process to 36 and 48 months, stirring the lees twice a year in the spring and in October before winter sets in. The vintners also proposed officially recognizing certain communes with specific soil types. The Clisson commune with granitic soils, the Gorges with gabbro and Le Pallet with a mix of granite, gneiss and gabbro were approved by the European Union authorities in 2011. Each of these communes produces distinctively different wines due to the affect that the soils have on the flavor of the grapes.

Both of these wines were purchased at Ridgeview Liquor in Ashwaubenon. This store has the most complete selection of French wines from every major growing area and it has some very high end Bordeaux and Burgundy for special occasions.

The 2013 La Divatte, 11.5 percent alcohol, is the more generic bottlings of the two and is about $15. It is 100 percent Melon de Bourgogne and met the minimum requirement for sur lie aging. This is a wine for the plumpest briny oysters on the market. It displays an energetic edge that reflects the higher acidity and the mineral tone of the gabbro that the grapes were grown on. There is an aroma of freshly bloomed milkweed flowers and peach skin with that same raspy peach skin texture on the tongue. I also think it would go well with some fresh broiled whitefish from Susie-Q's in Two Rivers.

The 2015 Domaine Verdier Gorges is 12 percent alcohol and aged a bit longer on the lees, is a much richer wine. The grapes were grown on the original 225 acres designated Muscadet in 1635. The average vine age is 40 years with some as old as 70 years. This wine has a slight effervescent quality that speaks to the hot dog days of August. There is a salty nose to the wine with hints of dried orange peel. Peaches and lychees on the tongue command your attention to a deeper richer wine that will stand up to grilled shrimp or swordfish. This is a wine to have in your cellar for some special occasions in the winter featuring rich seafood dishes.

Judging from the tasting I had with my wife, these are exciting versatile wines. Additionally, for those of us wanting reduced alcohol wines that have not sacrificed complexity, ageability and minerality, these are attractive buys. I hope you'll give these a try. Muscadet has definitely found the way back to respectability.

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