On July 20, 2020, I wrote an article about Chenin Blanc wines from Loire Valley, France. In that article, I articulated not only my love for Loire Chenin Blanc but also how Shenandoah and I had planned to honeymoon in Loire last year. Of course, COVID-19 changed that.
Well, I’m back with another wine region within Loire where we planned to honeymoon—Pay Nantais. Pays Nantais is the name of the region around the city of Nantes, which is located on the Loire River near the Atlantic. In the wine world, it is known for a singular grape, Melon de Bourgogne (“Melon”), and its wine, Muscadet.
If you'd rather watch Shen and I present the following information instead of reading, please check out this video:
Melon de Bourgogne’s history
Melon de Bourgogne’s origin is in eastern France. Melon was common in the former region of Franche-Comté, which was named after the Franche Comté de Bourgogne (Free County of Burgundy). Franche-Comté separated from Burgundy in the fifteenth century. Based on its Burgundian origins, it should come as no surprise that Melon is related to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
On February 5, 1556, Phillip II of Spain and Henry II of France signed the Treaty of Vaucelles to end the war between their two countries. Under the Treaty’s terms, Phillip II was given the Franche-Comté region. Phillip and his crew despised Melon so much that they banned its cultivation in 1567.
The Dutch Wine Trade introduced Melon to Pays Nantais in the 17th Century. The Dutch, who were avid brandy drinkers, were seeking an alternative source of base wine for their brandy. The Dutch convinced the Nantais growers to switch from the black varietals to producing Melon instead.
In the winter of 1709, a catastrophic frost killed most of the vines in Pays Nantais. Louis XIV ordered that Melon should be planted in lieu of the remaining black varietals.
Currently, Melon is the most planted grape variety in the Loire Valley.
Melon de Bourgogne is the only grape used to produce Muscadet wine. The grape is also called Muscadet, which reflects how closely it is identified with the wine.
Back when I first started studying wine, there was one wine term that was synonymous with Muscadet, sur lie. Sur lie means “on the lees.” Lees are dead or residual yeast particles that appear directly after fermentation. For Muscadet to be legally designated sur lie, the wine must remain on its lees throughout winter and bottled between March 1st and November 30th.
Muscadet’s sur lie process occurs in traditional underground glass-coated tanks and stainless-steel tanks. The use of inert vessels like glass and stainless-steel are key to the lees adding beneficial textures and flavors to Muscadet.
While Muscadet marked as sur lie has often been the only version of Muscadet to seek out, that is no longer the case. Many of the best Muscadets are aged on their lees past November 30th; however, these wines can’t be marked as sur lie since the wines exceed the legally permissible period of aging on lees. Village Cru wines, which I discuss below, are often aged on their lees between eighteen to twenty-four months. Some of the finest Muscadet are aged on the lees for up to forty-eight months.
There are four Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (“AOC”) for Muscadet. There is the gigantic AOC Muscadet, which encompasses the other three AOCs. The AOC Muscadet became an official AOC in 1937. Its grapevines reach from the Atlantic Ocean to the Anjou region. The other three AOCs are Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu.
Beginning at the Atlantic and heading east along the Loire, the first of the three regional appellations you'll encounter is the AOC Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu. This AOC was created in 1994. It is named for the Grandlieu lake—France’s largest natural plains lake—south of Nantes.
Next along the Loire is the AOC Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, which was established in 1936. It is one of France’s oldest AOCs. Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is named after the two small rivers, La Sèvre Nantaise and La Petite Maine, which run through the region. The Sèvre and Maine are the two last tributaries of the Loire before it reaches the Atlantic. Roughly 77% of all Muscadet’s vineyards are located here.
The eastern most regional AOC is Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire. It is also the smallest regional appellation in Pays Nantais. It is situated northeast of Nantes, along the sloping banks of the Loire.
Muscadet’s Cru Communaux
In 2011, three Cru Communaux (Village Crus) were established: Clisson, Le Pallet and Gorges. These Village Crus were created to showcase establish areas of excellence where Muscadet was at its best.
Today, there are ten Crus. Look for these names: Clisson, Le Pallet, Gorges, Goulaine, Mouzillon-Tillières, Monnières-Saint-Fiacre, Château-Thébaud, Goulaine, La Haye Foussaière, and Vallet. These names come from local villages, but boundaries were drawn based on underlying geology rather than a road map.
To be designated as a Village Cru wine, the wines must adhere to strict standards. These wines use the extended lees-ageing process mentioned above. They are made from a certain selection of grapes (e.g., from old vines) and grown on the village’s best plots with specific soils.
These wines are receiving high praise for their ability to age.
The Pays Nantais is situated on the southeastern tip of the Armorican Massif, which is an ancient massif dating back to the Precambrian Era. A series of geological events resulted in the formation of plutonic rock (granite and gabbro) and metamorphic rock (including gneiss, orthogneiss, mica schist, amphibolite and serpentinite). The chemical composition of these rocks, which form the subsoil of the Pays Nantais, significantly differ from one another, resulting in soils with a wide range of characteristics and behavior.
AOC Muscadet’s subsoil is a mosaic principally composed of igneous and sedimentary rock including gneiss, mica schist and gabbro (black volcanic rock).
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine has various soils of gneiss, granite, schist, and gabbo.
Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire has steep slopes of schist or granite
Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu has sandy, stony soils closes to the Atlantic
Muscadet’s poor reputation
In the 1970s and 80s, Muscadet was a popular, inexpensive wine. However, the big négociants and cooperatives tarnished the wine’s reputation. Négociants are merchants who buy grapes, juice, or finished wine from growers, then bottle and sell them on the market wholesale. Cooperatives are a group of winegrowers who purchase the grapes in bulk, vinify the grapes, and then handle the sales. The négociants and cooperatives took advantage of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to produce large quantities of basic white wine. It was a high-volume, low-margin business model and the resulting wines suffered. In the early 90s, Muscadet’s exports fell by almost half their 80s' quantity. Vineyards also shrunk dramatically over the next two decades.
The new era of Muscadet
While big négociants still account for 75% of Muscadet production, Muscadet’s future has never been brighter. Many smaller producers have moved away from the use of chemicals and are farming much more conscientiously. They are harvesting healthier grapes and distinguishing between soils. The newest generation of winemakers have trained throughout France and the world and have returned home to showcase what Muscadet can be when Melon is treated with love. There is no better example of where Muscadet is heading than the wines from the Crus Communaux. But even non-Cru wines are improving. It is an exciting time to drink Muscadet!
Muscadet’s beauty is that it’s a textural wine. It hits your mouth in ways that very few other wines do because of the aging on the lees. There's a roundness and body that you'd expect from a wine with high alcohol, not a wine with 12% ABV. Muscadet is so good when it hits your lips . . . so good. Queue Frank the Tank:
You’ll often hear Melon referred to as neutral grape, which means it’s not overly expressive or a fruit bomb. Don’t let this deter you. If anything, it’s another reason why Muscadet is a unique wine. Rather than aromas of fruits exploding out of the glass, you’ll encounter minerality and saline. The minerality, which reflects the wine’s terroir, is more evident because the wine isn’t overpowering your senses with gobs of fruit. The saline is evocative of the nearby ocean.
The lees not only provide texture, they also provide aromas and flavors. Muscadet often showcases brioche and biscuit. If you enjoy those aromas and flavors in your sparkling wines, many of which also go through lees ageing, then you’ll appreciate it in a still wine.
Muscadet is a dry wine with high acidity. Alcohol levels hover around 12% ABV. Because of the wine's texture, the body is often medium to medium plus.
MUSCADET AND OYSTERS!!! WOOOOOO!!!
In the wine pairing world, this is as close to peanut butter and jelly as you can get. This is a classic representation of when oenophiles say “what grows together, goes together."
Earlier, I mentioned the salinity often found in Muscadet. That makes it a perfect pairing with all seafood. But it is especially delectable with mollusks.
Because of Muscadet’s acidity and texture, it pairs well with more than just seafood. It’s delightful with a beurre blanc sauce. Muscadet’s acidity and richer mouthfeel make it an incredible pairing with a cheeseboard and charcuterie.
2017 Domaine Jean Aubron Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Cuvée Élegance
This dry wine showcased flavors and aromas of green apple, pear, honeysuckle, grass, lemon pith, flint, and underripe pineapple. Salinity was present. As was bread from the sur lie. Acidity was medium plus and alcohol was 12%. The body was medium minus. The finish was in the low-to-mid-twenties, which was solid for $16.
2013 Domaine Pierre Guindon Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire Sur Lie
This wine was the star of our tasting. It burst with aromas and flavors of brioche, almond, pear, chalk, mushroom, saline, orange blossom, wet stones, and fennel. The acidity was high and the alcohol was 12%. The body was medium to medium plus. The finish hit the high 20 second mark. Shen immediately commented that we need to go back and buy a case of this. I agree, this wine is exactly why I love Muscadet. An incredibly complex wine with delicious tertiary notes of mushroom and almond from aging in bottle. Yet, only $17.
2012 Hubert Rousseau Domaine Des Trois Toits Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie
This wine was mesmerizing, but it was also slightly past its prime. As you can see from the photo, this wine has oxidized. But it wasn’t vinegar. In fact, this wine confirmed what we had been reading from reliable sources—Muscadet can indeed age. On the nose were incredible aromas of toasted almonds, brioche, cheese, honey, butterscotch, and dried banana. On the palate were flavors of marzipan, cheese, toffee, quince paste, nutmeg, and orange pith. Honestly, if this had been a blind tasting I would have thought Manzanilla sherry. Even with all of these wonderful aromas and flavors, the wine had a short finish, which was disappointing. This is likely due to the oxidation. We will keep our eyes out for this wine again because even if this particular bottle wasn’t at its best, damn, this wine showed great potential.
A few years back, Shenandoah and I were wine tasting around Central Coast, CA. We spent one night in Paso Robles and dined at Bistro Laurent, a French bistro. They had an amazing raw bar so we started with a dozen oysters and Domaine Michel Brégeon’s Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie. It was a lovely opener to a wonderful meal. As we departed, we said goodnight to the sommelier and the owner, who were hanging out at the host stand. The sommelier informed the owner of our Muscadet and oyster order, and the owner’s face lit up with excitement. He applauded our wine pairing selection and explained how much he loved that pairing.
Most restaurants have to stock wine that will move off the shelf without any effort so they can keep the lights on, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t gems on the list. These wines are often accompanied by a great story and true passion from the sommelier or owner. We knew the connection between Muscadet and oysters so we didn’t need the hard sale. But that didn’t make the pairing any less incredible. I’d enjoy that pairing any day of the week.
I hope that after reading these posts and watching our videos you become more adventurous in your wine selection and look for the wines that don’t seem to fit with everything else on the wine list. The wines you’ve never heard of or you can’t pronounce. Those wines are on that list for a reason. Ask your server or sommelier why. You might be introduced to a phenomenal wine and food pairing like Muscadet and oysters.
I’m confident that Bistro Laurent has paired Muscadet and oysters for numerous patrons who weren’t aware that they were about to try wine pairing royalty. But now they get it. Hopefully, they too are writing blog posts about it.
Sending perfectly paired love,