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Affordable.  Delicious.  Straightforward. Perfect oyster wine. Underappreciated. Muscadet.

During a recent dinner at my favorite oyster bar, I was reintroduced to a delicious, uncomplicated and reasonable white wine that was once a regular aperitif in our house.   As luck would have it, my favorite go-to sparkling wine (at this particular restaurant) was sold out so I asked the Sommelier to recommend an alternate to pair with the evening’s oysters.

The Sommelier, a friend of mine, brought out a bottle of Domaine Luneau-Papin 2011 Muscadet — an unexpected, yet welcome surprise.

Muscadet is one of those ‘damn this is good, why don’t I drink more of this’ type of wines.

For no reason in particular, Muscadet fell off my wine radar a few years ago but the Luneau-Papin — delicious, affordable at just $35 restaurant price (~$16 wine shop retail), a perfect match for briny oysters — quickly renewed my interest in these oft-overlooked white wines from the western edge of France’s Loire Valley.

Situated at the western end of the Loire, at the mouth of the Loire river and a stones throw from the Atlantic, the countryside surrounding the city of Nantes is referred to as the Pays Nantais region — home to Muscadet.   

Map of the Loire Valley (photo credit: )

Map of the Loire Valley by region. (photo credit: Wikipedia )

In France, labeling regulations require AOC wines to be named after the grape variety or growing area in which the wine is made — Muscadet being an exception.  Muscadet is the name of the wine, not the grape nor place.  There is of course a generic Muscadet AOC in the Pays Nantais, which was officially recognized in 1937, and three sub-appellations: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire, Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu.   The Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, named for the two rivers that run through it, is the most notable appellation of the four, producing the most serious Muscadets.

The Melon de Bourgogne grape — a sibling to Chardonnay — is the only grape variety permitted in the region (though there is a move afoot to allow other varieties like Chardonnay to be grown for wine).  As the name suggests, Melon de Bourgogne has roots in Burgundy but is thought to have been first introduced to the Pay Nantais region by Dutch wine traders sometime in the early 17th century.

Though Jancis Robinson described Muscadet as ‘the first modern success story for the Loire’ in The World Atlas of Wine (7th edition), the wines have fallen out of favor in many wine circles and are often relegated to the bottom shelf in bottle shops.  As a result, Muscadet wine sales have declined considerably in the last few years causing growers to abandon or pull out vineyards.  In the last five years, hectares planted to Melon de Bourgogne in the region have decreased from 13,000 to 8,000.  It’s worth noting that Muscadet is still the most produced wine in the Loire.

Much of the the decline in popularity and market demand for Muscadet can be attributed to the large amounts of uninspiring bulk wine produced in the region.  In a recent interview with Louis-Dressner, Marc Ollivier winegrower at renowned Muscadet producer Domaine de la Pépière, sums up the challenges facing Muscadet best; “…another big problem is that people started planting vines everywhere to create a larger supply of Muscadet. The obvious results are that the vines are in soils not suited for viticulture. People forgot about terroir, and by doing that they forgot what makes an A.O.C: vignerons, grapes and soils.

The considerable amount of bulk wine that flooded the market years ago — mainly from the generic Muscadet AOC — reinforced the negative perception that Muscadet are simple, one-dimensional wines.  Though the Melon de Bourgogne grape does produce fairly neutral flavors, the complexity, flavor and texture of Muscadet improves considerably (exponentially almost) with extended time on the lees.  A practice many producers, especially those in the Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, follow.

Being unfashionable does have its benefits of course.  For wine enthusiasts that eschew en vogue varieties and ‘label cachet’ for great value and quality, Muscadet is arguably one of the best value French (not a contradiction) white wines on the market today.

The modest alcohol levels of Muscadet are also a plus.  Under current regulations the maximum abv of a Muscadet can be no more than 12%.  Since chaptalization — process of adding sugar to the unfermented juice to increase the alcohol level— is allowed, this 12% alcohol limit is after chaptalization.  Muscadet is the only unfortified French wine to have a maximum alcohol requirement.

Five reasons to drink Muscadet today:  

  1. Value!   Many (most) excellent Muscadets are available for ~ $15.    Like many wines from the Crus of Beaujolais, you generally get more than you pay for with Muscadet.
  2. ‘The’ Shellfish Wine.  Pairs perfectly with seafood — shrimp, mussels, crabs, and is the ideal companion for oysters.  Jon Bonné, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor, referred to Muscadet as “the perfect oyster wine.”
  3. Versatile & Food Friendly.  Modest alcohol levels (~12%) make Muscadet a great companion to many non-seafood dishes like pastas and chicken, or perfect as a pre-dinner aperitif without overpowering any of them.
  4. Delicious.  A crowd pleaser.  Muscadet is plain ‘ol delicious — light, refreshing, dry, and simple in the right way.
  5. Accessible and Ready to Drink Now.   While some of the best Muscadet can age gracefully for years, namely those that see more time on lees, most are aged in stainless steel and are accessible upon release (typically the spring following harvest).

A few of the Muscadets that I’ve enjoyed in the last couple weeks:

Domaine Luneau-Papin Muscadet 2011 
Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Loire Valley, France
100% Melon de Bourgogne
12% abv | ~$16
From a 30-hectare estate with 40 to 60 year-old vines located in the Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, the most notable appellation in the region. Those of us in the U.S. living outside major markets like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and DC, are most likely to find Muscadets from the Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine appellation in our local shops. Delicious, straight-forward and uncomplicated.  The seven months spent on its lees adds wonderful texture and complexity with layers of saline, pear, mineral and melon throughout. Super value at ~$16.  Imported by Louis-Dressner.  Find this wine via Snooth.

Luneau-Papin Muscadet Final

 

Domaine de la Louvetrie 2011
Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Loire Valley, France
100% Melon de Bourgogne
12% abv | ~$13
Made by renowned winegrower Jo Landron who produces only single-vineyard biodynamic Muscadet.  A beautiful wine, made better by the price.  If one could liquify stone this would be it.  A clean, refreshing wine with notes of stone, green melon, citrus, and hints of seawater on the edges. Reminds me of rain on a cool spring day.  Restrained with many years of life left in this one. Find this wine via Wine-Searcher.

Domaine de la Louvetrie Final

 

Chateau du Coing Comte de Saint-Hubert Muscadet 1999
Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Loire Valley, France
100% Melon de Bourgogne
12% abv | ~$19
Made from 100-year-old vines. Three years on lees.  Proof that Muscadet can age gracefully.  Dark gold in the glass, this wine is mineral-driven, with interesting notes of buttered brioche, and hints of lemon rounded out by those trademark western Loire saline notes.  Find this wine via Wine-Searcher.  DC wine friends can also find this wine at MacArthur’s — I was there perusing the shelves and noticed several bottles of this wine in a floor case.

Chateau du Muscadet

Drink more Muscadet — today!

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