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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.