In Praise of Muscadet
With the tidal waves of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that wash across Canada these days it’s easy to overlook a white wine that is eminently food friendly and priced for value.
I’m talking about Muscadet. The name sounds as if it should taste like a junior version of Muscat, but nothing could be further from Detroit. Muscadet is a brisk white wine with a minerally, floral, citrus flavour that is the perfect partner for oysters specifically and seafood generally.Muscadet is the largest still white wine appellation in France covering 12,000 hectares at the western end of the Loire Valley. The region produces some 600,000 hectolitres of wine from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. If that suggests to you that its original home was Burgundy, you’d be correct. Melon’s Burgundian origins date back to the beginnings of the 17th century. It became the dominant variety in the Loire after the ferociously cold winter of 1709, which destroyed all the red varieties planted there. The area from Nantes going west is subjected to the vicissitudes of the cold winds that blow off the Atlantic Ocean.
According to research done by the great French ampelographer, Pierre Galet, it was the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, who ordered the Loire region to be replanted with Muscadent blanc — the Melon de Bourgogne that has long disappeared from Burgundy’s wine fields. Through DNA analysis it was discovered that Melon de Bourgogne is a cross between the Pinot family and a medieval grape called Gouais Blanc that has also gone the way of the dodo.
I had always thought that Muscadet was a wine to be consumed fresh and young, within a year of its vintage date. That was before I visited the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers St Laud in January. In one vast hall there were 600 winemakers, over 130 of them producing Muscadet from the region’s four main appellations. At the booth of Pierre Luneau Papin I tasted a series of five Muscadets under the Le ‘L’ d’Or label from 2009 back to 1997. The 1999 that had spent eleven months on the lees tasted like a Grand Cru Chablis. And the 1997 (one the great Loire vintages) came on like a rich Meursault.
The secret of Muscadet that gives it its ability to age is a winemaking technique called sur lie. The wine is left in the tank or barrel on its dead yeast cells for matter of months, which gives it more flavour and complexity as well as a hint of pétillance, a prickle on the tongue. Like most advances in wine technology this flavour-enhancing procedure was discovered by accident. Muscadet producers were in the habit of setting aside a preferred barrel for a special occasion, like a family wedding. This reserved wine became known as the ‘honeymoon barrel’ and because of its length of time on the lees it developed more flavour, body and mouthfeel. The enzymes released during this process inhibited oxidation allowing the wine to age (think of champagne that is left on the lees before it’s disgorged).
Many of the Muscadet sur lie wines I tasted at the Salon des Vins had remained on their lees for many months. The exception was a wine Pierre Luneau Papin called Pueri Solis (Children of the Sun) 2005 that had spent 42 months on its lees. The wine had a rich minerally peachy flavour with a lovely caressing mouthfeel.
So next time you go looking for a white wine to have with fish, shellfish or oysters don’t overlook the humble Muscadet. And if it has ‘Sur Lie’ on the label, try laying it down for a few years. You’ll be as surprised as I was.