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Muscadet is Morphing
By Michael Apstein
May 22, 2018
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The cru system--as in Grand or Premier Cru Burgundy or the cru of Beaujolais--has reached Muscadet.  The growers there are doing what producers throughout the world are doing:  They are defining and identifying specific areas within the broader region that are capable of producing distinctive wines.  The French wine regulators have agreed that certain villages (crus) within the region have unique terroir and are capable of producing unique wines that are very different from traditional Muscadet. This new AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) will carry the name of the village (cru) prominently displayed on the label along with the broader region, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine.  In some cases, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is even relegated to the back label to emphasize the importance of the individual cru.  

I think the system makes sense because, judging from the dozens I’ve tasted, these wines are entirely different from conventional Muscadet. Just as in Beaujolais, where Moulin-à-Vent bears no resemblance to Beaujolais or even Beaujolais-Villages, wines from the cru of Muscadet bear no resemblance to Muscadet or even Muscadet Sèvre et Maine--one of the best sub-regions.

The establishment of cru in Muscadet is a boon for consumers because the wines are thrilling and completely different from “classic Muscadet,” a term that growers are adopting to describe traditionally-framed wines to distinguish them from the cru wines.  Consumers need not worry that the refreshing zesty style of Muscadet they know and love is disappearing.  Far from it.  When the cru system is finally fully in place, the wines from those villages will represent a very small percentage of Muscadet.  Furthermore, from talks I’ve had with producers, the premium consumers will pay over and above classic or traditional Muscadet will still put the wines from the cru in the “exceptional value” category.

A potential impediment to the implementation and success of the cru system is, of course, the added--and sometimes confusing--information on the label.  When attending a comprehensive tasting of these wines last month in the Loire, it took a full twenty minutes for the growers to walk me through the labels.  Consumers will need time to learn more geography as well as the names of these seemingly obscure villages.  Rest assured, the cru wines are exciting and eye-opening--it’s like discovering a whole new category--and well worth the effort.

To put this new category in perspective, some background helps. Muscadet is a large region at the western-most end of the Loire where it empties into the Atlantic.  It makes only white wine and only from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, which has no relationship to Burgundy as we know it.  (The producers in Muscadet are encouraging everyone to refer to the grape simply as Melon to avoid confusion with the Burgundy region.)  Within Muscadet, there are two major sub-regions, each of which has its own appellation, Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, and Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu, whose wines are considerably more interesting than ones simple labeled Muscadet. 

Producers insist that the soil in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, a combination of gneiss, granite and schist, but with no rocks or stones, accounts for the mineral-y, steely wines for which the sub-region is known.  Côtes de Grandlieu, a much smaller area--750 acres compared to about 22,000 acres for Sèvre et Maine--is warmer because, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the stones in the ground reflect the heat toward the vines during the day and retain it during the night.  Moreover, Côtes de Grandlieu lies between the Loire river and a big lake, both of which moderate the temperature.  The warmth means the grapes are a bit riper, which translates in richer wines that still maintain the Muscadet signature of minerality and vibrancy. (See Wayne Belding’s superb article from last week’s issue of WRO to learn more about the geology of this area:  http://winereviewonline.com/Wayne_Belding_on_Pays_Nantais.cfm)

To help balance the vigorous acidity for which the region is known and to create a smoother texture, growers frequently age Muscadet on the yeast that have died after completing fermentation (the lees) for up to nine months while still in stainless steel tanks.  Wines that have undergone this aging carry the words, Sur Lie on the label. Muscadet rarely undergoes aging in barrel because the influence of the wood mutes the engaging lively character for which the wine is prized.

Although most Muscadet is drunk young because its lively, flinty character pairs well with the local seafood (Muscadet and oysters is a classic combination), some growers keep a small amount of wine in tank on the lees for years before bottling, for “friends and family.”  No producer could explain the origin of this technique to me, but perhaps they borrowed the concept from Champagne, where prolonged lees-aging softens the acidity and is used to make super-premium Champagne known as late-disgorged Champagne. These prolonged lees-aged Muscadet are stunning and unique, delivering a Burgundian-like richness framed by firm acidity. 

When I first tasted a wine from a Muscadet cru in New York in 2012, Nicolas Choblet, the owner of Domain du Haut Bourg exclaimed with a broad smile that this technique “proves Muscadet can be a great wine.” No argument here.  Choblet explained what was needed:  The structure that acidity provides and ripe grapes. “Then you don’t do anything, but watch it develop.  The work is really in the vineyard.”  Paradoxically, these wines, which receive prolonged--two to three years--of aging on the lees do not carry the sur lie designation because the lees-aging exceeds the nine-month period limited by the regulations. In addition to the required prolonged lees-aging, to ensure higher quality wine, the yield for the cru will be 25 percent lower than for classic Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (45 versus 60 hl/ha), according to François Robin from Vins de Nantes.

The authorities granted cru status to three villages, Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet, in 2011.  Four more villages are scheduled to be included with the 2019 vintage: Monnières-Saint Fiacre, Château-Thébaud (a village name, not a producer), Mouzillon Tillères and Goulaine.

The soil and climate in each village is different, which accounts for the differences among the wines, according to Jérémie Huchet, a producer in Monnières-Saint Fiacre.  He explains that the prolonged lees-aging is needed to soften the even more prominent acidity in the wines from these villages.  He believes the acidity gives the spine to the wine while the creamy body comes from the lees-aging.  Robin believes that the wines from the cru have more in common with Burgundy than with classic Muscadet, making them more suitable for “serious” meals compared to Muscadet’s usual pairing with casual fare. 

What struck me was the similarity of wines from an individual cru, despite being made by different producers, and the vast difference in character one cru to another.  It was a dramatic reminder that terroir is alive and well and not limited to Burgundy.  Here in Muscadet, wines made from the same grape but grown in neighboring villages tasted very different.

What’s happening in Muscadet is just part of an overall trend in wine--and in food--to tell consumers the origin of the product.  It’s more than just the parochial “my wine is different from yours so it deserves its own name” mentally of the French appellation system.  To be sure, drilling down to the exact plot may be overkill in some instances, but in general, the more the consumer knows about the origin, which truly does dictate the character and quality of the product, the better.

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Email me your thoughts about Muscadet at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 23, 2018