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Muscadet


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The wines of the Loire are distinct from their competitors in other parts of the world, to be sure. But none nearly as much as Muscadet, the unmistakable salty-sweet creation from the western Loire. It is one of few white wines that is actually almost white in color, more of a pale grey to off-white than the yellow or gold of most white wines. At 32,000 acres, the massive appellation for its production takes up almost all of the western Loire.

Overproduction has brought down Muscadet's reputation; actually, more wine is made here than in any other appellation of the Loire. The name has to do with the musk-like aroma of the wines, leading to confusion with popular white wine grape Muscat. But Muscat has nothing to do with Muscadet, since the latter is made from the grape Mélon de Bourgogne.

Due to a bizarre production process, these wines have avoided having any competition and as a result have attained cult status; they fuse elements so unusual that the wine can be replicated nowhere else. A number of factors contribute to the charm of Muscadet; read about them below.

History

The story of how Muscadet came to be the most produced wine in the Loire is certainly interesting; it started many centuries ago. At some point before the Middle Ages, papal figures had the vineyards planted, but whether they used Mélon de Bourgogne or not is still unclear, and of course they did not use the current method of producing Muscadet.

At some point during the 1700s, when French wine began to boom, the Mélon de Bourgogne grape (which originated in Burgundy, hence its name) was transferred to the Muscadet region and producers began to discover the capabilities of the grape. Muscadet became an AOC in 1937, one of the first AOCs in the Loire. Improvements in winemaking techniques, advancements in technology, and innovation by producers, caused Muscadet to continue increasing in popularity, and at this point the appellation is quite well-known.

Climate and Viticulture

The climate of the Muscadet region is the most maritime of the entire Loire, since it lies close to the Atlantic Ocean. Interestingly, attempts to produce "normal" wines here have not gone well, perhaps because the appellation is so cool and wet due to the ocean winds. The Mélon de Bourgogne grape, however, which has fallen out of favor everywhere else, can make remarkable wines under these weather conditions.

The soils of the Muscadet region are quite diverse, varying from clay to sand. Uniformly, the soil is highly drainable and rich with minerals such as magnesium and potassium. The best vineyards of the appellation often have schist soils.

The secret of Muscadet production, however, lies neither in the climate nor the soil. The important part is aging the wines on their lees. In French this process is known as sur lie aging; it purposely omits the traditional removal of the dead yeast, or lees, that is a byproduct of fermentation. The lees move to the bottom of the barrel, and infect the wine with a distinctive yeasty, salty taste. Most producers consider this undesirable, but in Muscadet it combines with the other flavors of the wine to make a very interesting drink.

Grape Varieties

Major Producers

Although the wines of Muscadet have long been considered homogeneous, some producers really go above and beyond the call of duty. We give a half-dozen producers here that follow this criterion.

Subregions

The better Muscadets tend to be labeled under one of the three designated subappellations.

Another thing to note is that some wines label themselves sur lie and some don't. Due to strange, outdated rules in the region, sur lie only includes wines aged for at most 12 months on their lees. This excludes many of the best wines, which are aged for well over a year. So sur lie labels don't necessarily confer top quality on a wine.