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.
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.
- Mélon de Bourgogne: Mélon de Bourgogne. Ever heard of it? Its literal name is Melon of Burgundy, and it is a white grape that originated in the land of the wine of kings. But it fell out of popularity a long time ago, and the region is now dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Almost the only remaining usage is in Muscadet, yet in this region the grape is the only one used! It makes a distinctively salty, unusual-tasting wine that is considered bland by some and unforgettably distinctive by others. Judge for yourself.
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.
- Chereau-Carre: Good Muscadets for around $8-$12; these prices can hardly be beaten. There are a few different styles; the sur lie versions are clearly the best. Most of the wines combine green citrus flavors with zesty minerality.
- Domaine de l'Ecu: Ecu makes pretty much the best wines in Muscadet, particularly the brilliant Expression de Orthogneiss. At about $20, this one offers remarkable flavors of zesty green and yellow citrus fruit, with chewy, even rich texture, and bitter minerality. Expression de Granite is more stony, with more conventional yellow fruit flavors, and also is a bit sweeter. Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie is another top-notch cuvée.
- Domaine Pierre de la Grange/Pierre Luneau-Papin: All these wines are made from the Sèvre et Maine part of Muscadet. The Vieilles Vignes is rich and powerful, more serious and more full-bodied than most other white wines in Muscadet. Le L d'Or is intense but more citrussy, with a spicy zest and mineral core that suggests ageability. Clos des Allées is the best, though, with intense floral aromas and fleshy, vibrant fruit notes. These offerings differ from typical Muscadet and are deep and complex enough to be among the area's best wines.
- Domaine la Haute Fevrie: The Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie styles are the best here, with bright but bitter pear fruit flavors throughout and spicy, zesty herb notes close to the finish, which is strongly mineral. Less intense, and closer to the $10 range, the non-sur lie style is more light and refreshing.
- Ragotière: For about $11, one can get the Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, which has impressive citrus and herb flavors, but for only a few dollars more, the Sur Lie Selection Vieilles Vignes is more spicy, intense, and vibrant. These wines show a lot of flavor.
- Sauvion: Impressively solid wines, particularly the Savion de Cleray, which is full of zesty but intense green fruit notes. This is a classically made Muscadet with the typical salty taste rendered in a particularly powerful, unusual style.
The better Muscadets tend to be labeled under one of the three designated subappellations.
- Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire: Strange regulations govern this appellation, and as a result few producers like to use it.
- Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu: These wines are inexpensive but often good.
- Muscadet-Sère et Maine: Around 75% of the wines produced in Muscadet fall under this subappellation, mainly because it is a notoriously large region that encompasses around 60% of Muscadet's acreage! Still, it does distinguish many of the top-quality wines. Practically all of the wines in the above list come from this appellation, as well as many more that we have not mentioned.
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.