Archive for the ‘Loire’ Category

Celebrations of the Everyday: II – Muscadet

March 20, 2014

A few weeks back I wrote a post about Chianti Classico, the first of several pieces intended to celebrate wines that are friendly, adaptable, reliable, and pleasurable, even though of less prestige, less pressure, and less price than the stratospheric level of great ones. Now I will nominate for membership in the Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines (CCAW, pronounced ca-CAW, like a fish crow summoning his flock to a beach party) a vastly underappreciated white wine, Muscadet.

Muscadets can be, and these days often are, very lovely wines, and they are rarely costly, but nevertheless they don’t get much respect. Maybe it’s because the name is too easy to mispronounce (I once, eons ago, actually heard someone order a “mouse cadet,” as if Walt Disney ran a training school) or maybe it’s because, in the ‘70s, the wine was overproduced, uninteresting, and ubiquitous on French wine lists (and back then that meant 90% of all restaurants that had wine lists).

Whatever: All that is long past, and the Muscadets coming to this country now are a pretty nice crop of wines – still ideal with oysters, as their long-standing reputation has it, but fine too as aperitifs or as dinner companions with any seafood. The best bottles have heft and character to go well beyond that; they pair comfortably with chicken, veal, pork – with white meat dishes generally, unless they are very richly sauced. So Muscadet these days is a wine enjoyable to drink in many circumstances, versatile with many foods, undemanding of attention but rewarding should you choose to give it – in short, an ideal candidate for CCAW.

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No one is quite sure where the name Muscadet came from. The one thing certain about it is that the grape has nothing whatever to do with Muscat. In fact, though the grape is sometimes referred to as Muscadet, its real name is Melon de Bourgogne, though Burgundy is not believed to be where it originated. We do know that it was several times banned there, because various Dukes of Burgundy put their power behind Chardonnay and Pinot noir. (No one has ever faulted them for that.)

Wherever Melon de Bourgogne – the Melon of Burgundy! what an undignified name for a wine grape! – originally came from, it eventually wound up at the mouth of the Loire, and upstream as far as around the city of Nantes. From that stretch of hills all the best Muscadet now originates. There, with a climate somewhat moderated by the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, the peripatetic Melon settled in on lean, stony soils to make wines that drank beautifully with the bountiful seafood so close by. Like people, grapes have to find their right place, and the hills near Nantes and the sea let Melon de Bourgogne find its vocation.

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These days, more and more growers are working hard to let the grape express its best nature, carefully choosing the sites on which to grow it, fermenting and aging it sur lie – on the yeast lees – to give it greater roundness, controlling yields very tightly to get more concentration. Their labor has paid off: Muscadet now is, at its least, a very pleasant wine to drink young and fresh, and at its best a distinctive, mineral-inflected wine with a moderate complexity and a moderate capacity to age.

Bear in mind too that with Muscadet, “mineral” covers a multitude of flavors. Exact science types point out – rightly – that we can’t taste “mineral,” but I know that I taste in various Muscadets elements that to my palate say slate, or chalk, or limestone, even oyster shell. Muscadets vary too in the foregrounding or backgrounding of their fruit (usually lemon or lime, occasionally white fruits). What this means for the consumer is that there are many styles of Muscadet to choose from – and since Muscadet is inexpensive – sometimes as little as $10, very rarely up to $30 – you can afford to try several bottles to find a style you like.

Here are a few of the many available I’ve been enjoying lately:

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Cormerais, Clisson 2008
Old vines and lean soil yield a classic round, full (for a Muscadet) food wine, surprisingly fresh and vigorous for its age. This one very pleasantly surprised me. It would be worth cellaring some of these for a decade, just to see how they develop.

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Domaine de l’Ecu, Cuvée Classique 2011, Expression de Gneiss 2011, Expression de Granite 2011
Grower Guy Bossard names some of his wines for the kinds of soil they grow in. The Classique is a blend of several vineyards, meant for drinking young. The other two are from the named soils and are a bit more austere – mineral-structured rather than fruit-driven – and can take a little bottle age. Very different from each other, and all very good drinking.

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Domaine de la Louvetrie, Amphibolite Nature 2012
Totally dry, lean and fruity – slightly citrusy – with the mineral notes well in the background. Excellent aperitif wine and good accompaniment to light hors d’oeuvres and appetizers.

Domaine de la Pepière, Muscadet 2012
This is what I think of as classic Muscadet, dry and mineral-driven, with white fruit notes throughout. This is also Pepière’s basic Muscadet: the estate makes several others (for example, “3” and Chateau Thebaud Clos Morines), of increasing degrees of complexity and/or intensity. I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like.

Luneau-Papin, Pierre de la Grange 2011, Clos des Allées 2012
Both wines are from old vines and show intense minerality and a slight lemony character. Pleasant drinking now and structured to take some age.

muscadets

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As I said at the beginning of this post, Muscadet has had a checkered history in this country. From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, when most wine in America spoke French, Muscadet was everywhere. It was simple, it was inexpensive, and it was almost obligatory with oysters or clams on the half shell. Then, as with so many simple, enjoyable white wines, its popularity undid it. Production rose to meet demand, and that meant overcropping and cultivating unsuitable sites in order to pour more and more wine into circulation. Inevitably, as quality fell, Muscadet’s market died, and for a decade or two the wine virtually disappeared from retail shops and restaurant lists.

Since the turn of the millennium, Muscadet has been making a comeback, both in its production and on the market. Intermittently, attention has started being paid. A few years back, for instance, Eric Asimov wrote a nice article for the New York Times about the pleasures of Muscadet that caused a momentary flurry of interest, but few other journalists followed through, and enthusiasm for Muscadet has really stayed at a low-ish, just-above-cult level for a while now. I don’t expect my purple prose will change that, but at least I’d like to cast my vote for it. Muscadet is an amiable wine if there ever was one.

Hot-Weather Red Wines

August 15, 2013

Nowhere is it carved in stone that you must drink white wines or rosé all summer long. Not that that’s bad, mind you: I’ve had some lovely whites and enjoyable rosés so far this tarmac-melting season. But I can only go so long before my system requires red wine. The first signs of my withdrawal symptoms are usually quickening of the pulse at casual mentions of, say, Beaujolais, followed at the next stage by scent hallucinations: I keep thinking I smell Gragnano or Freisa. When that starts happening, Attention Must Be Paid.

Maresca family legend has it that this addiction was formed in my earliest childhood, when my Neapolitan grandfather – the man whose youthful moustache style still adorns my upper lip – fed me slices of peaches that he had cut up and soaked in his glass of cellar-cool red wine.

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Grandmother and Grandfather Maresca in their  Vegetable Garden

Maresca Grandparents in their Vegetable Garden

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The most extreme forms of the story have me still in my highchair, which became a high chair indeed as I imbibed those wine-soaked peaches. I barely remember any of this, but I still enjoy peaches in wine. My grandfather’s wine was, I am sure, homemade stuff from the-cousins-down-on-the-farm, but peaches and I are adaptable: We’ll both work with just about any fresh, fruity red wine.

The easiest recourse, of course, is Beaujolais. It’s available everywhere, and there are many good producers. In a pinch, I can even drink some of Georges Duboeuf’s better cru bottlings. His Julienas and Fleurie and Regnié seem to have a more modest touch of the banana-oil scent so prominent elsewhere in his line, which many years ago led some less-reverent wine journalists to refer to him as Georges Du Banane. Duboeuf has the advantage of availability: His wines are sold almost everywhere. NB: For peach-soaking purposes, his simple Beaujolais Villages works best.

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But for savoring purposes, there are many excellent smaller Beaujolais producers whose wines are worth seeking out. Two of my favorites are Jean Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette. The latter’s Fleurie and Christal and the former’s Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas are among my all-time top Beaujolais.

In the US, Chénas is probably the least-known of the Beaujolais crus, but it’s one of my favorites for its intense individuality – and its surprisingly ability to age. In France, I have drunk 10- and 15-year-olds that were just lovely, almost Burgundian in their velvetiness and complexity. Moulin-à-vent is the cru that is best known here for its cellaring potential, but Morgon shouldn’t be overlooked in that regard either. Remember, it’s acidity that keeps a wine alive, and all Beaujolais have an abundance of that.

Some Loire reds also serve very well in summer, since their soft fruit – Cabernet franc – makes them tolerant of a little chilling, in the manner of Beaujolais. Don’t ice them to death, but serve a good Saumur or Bourgueil at a true cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 degrees, and you can enjoy them in the steamiest of Julys and Augusts. I haven’t actually tried slicing peaches into any of these, but I see no reason why the combination shouldn’t taste fine. In the old days – which are getting more and more distant all the time – when red wines normally ran about 12 or 12.5 degrees of alcohol, you could even enjoy St. Emilion or Gigondas served cool on a hot summer evening, but today’s higher-alcohol wines don’t respond well to such treatment, and would probably overwhelm a humble peach – alas.

More recondite choices come from Italy: harder to find, perhaps, but worth the effort. Bardolino is a reviving appellation that deserves more attention than it gets. The best of them combine the kind of light, fresh fruit and vivacious acidity that make an excellent warm-weather dinner drink and companion to fish, white flesh, or salume or pastas – a very useful, almost-all-purpose wine, and certainly suitable for soaking a few peaches.

Gragnano – a personal favorite, and probably close to the kind of wine my grandfather first dunked his peaches in as a young man in Italy – makes the perfect pizza or pasta summer wine. Grown in the Sorrento peninsula, it was once the ubiquitous everyday red wine of Naples, where I’m sure it still cradles many a peach slice after lunch and dinner. Several good growers – Grotta del Sole, Federiciane, and Monteleone for example – are now reviving the breed. Gragano is vinified from a blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso, the latter a very localized, very Campanian variety.

Sicily, as you might expect, offers some lovely warm weather reds, most notably Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The latter should not be confused with the Marche’s Cerasuolo, an entirely different wine from an entirely different grape. The principal variety in both Sicilian wines is the indigenous Frappato, which makes a charming, light-bodied and light-cherry-colored wine under both denominations. Both are delightful hot-weather drinking and worth some effort to find.

Back in the north, in addition to the big, austere Nebbiolo wines, the fields around Alba also produce Freisa and Grigolino, two wines that have lost ground – in the most literal sense – to the growth of Barolo and Barbaresco. Freisa and Grignolino are almost polar opposites of those two wines: both are lighter-bodied, acidic, and sprightly – indeed, you often find slightly fizzy examples. Freisa smells and tastes like a strawberry/raspberry cocktail with an underlayer of tar (we are in the Piedmont after all), while Grignolino is the grittier, earthier, seemingly more rustic wine of the two. Pio Cesare makes a lovely example of it, and several good small growers have remained loyal to/are turning back to Freisa. Both make great companions to a summer lunch or dinner, and both take a little chilling without losing anything – in fact, a slight chill seems to me to better release their aromas.

So there are lots of wines to choose from, and you have no excuse to give up red wine because of the weather. Get busy peeling and slicing those peaches!

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