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Four New Crus for Muscadet

I was delighted to learn today that the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine have, on Wednesday 19th June, officially recognised four new cru communal zones in Muscadet. The four new crus are Goulaine, Château-Thébaud, Monnières-Saint-Fiacre and Mouzillon-Tillières. These four join the three crus which were ratified back in 2011, these being Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet, as described in my Guide to the 2011 Crus Communaux.

Together these seven crus represent the highest level of Muscadet, wines of high quality and very limited production. The 2018 harvest brought in just 6000 hectolitres eligible for the three designations in existence, from just 150 hectares of vineyard (40 hl/ha on average, if you were just about to get your calculator out) which met all the cru criteria. The arrival of four new crus should see that figure rise, but it won’t be an explosion. Vineyards are not automatically eligible, they must be identified by a willing vigneron, submitted for cru status, inspected and signed off, then worked in a manner which meets the criteria, and the harvest, vinifications and time the wine spends on the lees must also clear the bar.

Four New Crus for Muscadet

Despite these crus being newly ratified I already have plenty of experience with the wines, as many vignerons have been working to a level that meets the criteria for some time (as illustrated above, a Mouzillon-Tillières released more than ten years ago), the development of the new cru communal system being very much a vigneron-led process. For more on Château-Thébaud and Monnières-Saint-Fiacre, see my Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective Tasting published in January this year. I will add a guide to the four new crus to my Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wine guide as soon as possible, and hopefully get around to tasting more from Mouzillon-Tillières and Goulaine.

Congratulations to all those in Muscadet who have been pushing this through! I know it has taken many years of effort. Now the attention must turn to the remaining cru candidates, La-Haye-Fouassière, Vallet and Champtoceaux – maybe after a celebratory glass of Château-Thébaud first!

Wine Paris and Vinexpo Paris Join Forces

Three years ago a new cool-climate wine fair, Vinovision, sprang into life in Paris. Attendance from the Loire Valley was pretty good, well worth me going.

Since then the fair has expanded considerably, and earlier this year it was joined by ViniSud, making it a much bigger and more impressive event, under the title Wine Paris. Having said that, the presence from the Loire Valley was not, in the second and third editions, quite as strong as it was in year one.

Many exhibitors found they poured a lot more wine at the Salon des Vins de Loire, and understandably they decided to attend that fair in preference.

Next year, however, Wine Paris will be joined by Vinexpo Paris. The dates wil be February 10th – 12th, 2020, and I know I will be attending. And I think it is time for those Loire exhibitors who drifted away from Vinovision/Wine Paris to come back I think. This is going to be a pretty amazing wine fair.

Press release below:

Identical dates and the same venue for a new encounter geared to the needs of the global wine and spirits industry.

Bordeaux, 15 May 2019 – In February 2020, Paris will be the global focal point for wines and spirits as WINE PARIS and VINEXPO PARIS take place concurrently. This shared desire is in response to market demand for the two exhibitions to come together in Paris to create a new, international landmark event at a key time in the buying calendar.
a collective ambition in response to market demand

WINE PARIS and VINEXPO PARIS have chosen to bring together their 2020 exhibitions from 10 to 12 February 2020 at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles.

This unprecedented and collective initiative by the two organisers (COMEXPOSIUM and VINEXPO), with the approval of the boards of VINISUD and VINOVISION PARIS, is a response awaited by members of the wine and spirits sector. The announcement aims to give visibility to all the professionals and further discussions will take place in the coming weeks.

This cohesive approach is a chance for producers, trading companies and brands to optimise their resources and benefit from an event with maximum impact. It will unquestionably promote the events’ appeal and act as a magnet for national buyers (wine merchants, Horeca channels, sommeliers, distributors, specialised wholesalers and sales agents) and draw international buyers to the French capital, at a time of the year which is conducive to buying.

It will also consolidate France’s undeniable wine expertise and culture and strengthen its international reputation.

WINE PARIS stems from the convergence of VINISUD and VINOVISION PARIS, of Mediterranean and cool climate wines, promoting their regional identities, their myriad attributes and diversity. The fusion of these two easily identifiable and complementary exhibitions marked the first collective approach by all the founding marketing boards to create the first major international wine business event in Paris.

By creating VINEXPO PARIS, VINEXPO’s ambition was to seize the growth opportunities slated for the global wine and spirits market. This new international business platform in the heart of the French capital will boast new services such as the INFINITE BAR and the LAB for the exhibition’s spirits area. Its inception aligns with one of the strategic development priorities set by VINEXPO’s board of directors, which is to provide expert exhibitions as close as possible to the major markets (Bordeaux, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai).

While both exhibitions will continue to encapsulate their own inherent characteristics, holding them simultaneously offers an additional asset that will strengthen France’s position as a major crossroads for engagement and the promotion of all French regions and vineyard sites, as well as international wine regions.

Supraliminal Bordeaux

Have you ever been subliminally influenced?

If you happen to be a psychology graduate you will immediately see the problem in asking and answering that question (for the rest of us, I will explain what this problem is in a moment). Nevertheless, this is a question I asked myself after my recent return from Bordeaux, following this year’s primeurs tastings. Well, truth be told, I did not first ask the question myself. I was prompted to consider it by this post, in which Jamie Goode wrote of a sense of “privileged access” in Bordeaux, and stated that “it is very hard as a visiting journalist or trade buyer not to be at least subliminally influenced by the grandeur of the top properties”.

I will be the first to admit that many aspects of the primeurs are flawed, and the notion that the process of visiting a château can exert inappropriate influence on the taster is a frequently heard and valid criticism. It is easy to come up with a few examples that might support such an argument. A taste of the latest vintage of Château Latour, for instance, with a view from the tasting room over the Latour vineyards and to the Gironde beyond, is perhaps enough to make the heart of any fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pauillac, Bordeaux or just very good red wine take a momentary flutter.

Château Cheval Blanc

Similarly, just down the road at Château Pontet-Canet the signposted route out of the annual tastings changes every year, and as a regular visitor I know that I am about to be walked through whatever new barrel cellar, vat room or stone-built stable has just been completed in the ever-ongoing rebirth of the domaine. It is part of ‘selling’ the domaine, its story, and a message about the quality of its wine. On the other side of the Gironde, I recall my first visit to Château Cheval Blanc after the construction of its cathedral-like cellars and undulatory vats (pictured above) which have the potential, perhaps, to inspire a reverential state of worship. And it would be easy to sell the story of a visit to Petrus, with its printed invitations to a tasting in the domaine’s inner sanctum, as being one of exclusivity.

Is this not the Bordelais trying to subliminally influence the visitor? It has been suggested, erroneously, that it is the case.

The notion that humans can be subliminally influenced dates back to the experiments of James Vicary in 1956, in which he flashed messages on screen during a movie encouraging theatre-goers to “eat popcorn” and “drink coke”. The two phrases each spent only 0.3 microseconds on the screen, too brief to be registered by the conscious mind. And yet the messages seemed to have a result, as sales soared, although it is now widely believed these figures were simply invented, and Vicary later retracted his results. Nevertheless, the idea has taken hold, and the notion that we might be subject to subliminal influence when watching television, or visiting the cinema, or indeed visiting a Bordeaux château, persists.

The term ‘subliminal’ has certain connotations. Vicary’s experiment, if it had proved effective and if its results were reproducible (they aren’t), would have opened the door to a new world of marketing, giving unimaginable power to America’s Mad Men and marketers. The term conjures up notions of nefarious deeds, iniquitous politicians planting political messages in the subconscious minds of floating voters, and unscrupulous marketers using mind control, instructing us against our will (and better judgement) to buy and drink Coca Cola. Jamie’s use of the term subliminal paints not only Bordeaux but also its visitors in a similar light. It suggests that the châteaux might not be above using underhand methods to inflate the scores their barrel sample is awarded. It also suggests that the visiting tasters are helpless receivers of this transmitted message, and that we might walk away, swooning, as if the defining characteristic of a Bordeaux reviewer is that they can be trained just as easily as Pavlov trained his dogs.

I have bad news for any marketing agencies who wish to persuade their clients in Bordeaux that a little subliminal marketing might produce a slew of 100-point scores. A successful subliminal marketing strategy simply does not exist; as nobody has ever managed to reproduce the results ‘achieved’ (or should that be fabricated?) by Vicary we know it does not work. What the Bordeaux châteaux are very good at though is supraliminal messaging, and this is what Jamie experienced during his visit to the region, and indeed all of the examples I cited above are supraliminal, not subliminal. Subliminal messaging is, by definition, undetectable by the conscious mind (hence the problem with asking the question “have you ever been subliminally influenced?” – if you were aware of the influence, then it inherently wasn’t subliminal). External stimuli such as a view over a grand vineyard, having cellars to rival the nave of Notre Dame (before the fire, obviously), inducing a feeling of privileged access, whatever, are overtly supraliminal, in that the external influence is obvious, apparent and detectable by the conscious mind.

So what, you might say, the Bordelais are still up to their old tricks. But I would argue this is much more than a semantic difference. Whereas the human mind cannot resist subliminal messaging, because we are not conscious of its existence, supraliminal messaging works but it can easily be rejected, provided you are switched on to it. A classic example for you was the German-French wine-selling experiment conducted in the 1990s (The Influence of In-Store Music on Wine Selections, North AC et al, Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(2):271-276) when a British supermarket found that playing French music increased sales of French wine, and playing German music resulted in German wine outselling French wine. None of the shoppers felt they had been influenced by the music, so you might think this was a subliminal message, but it was not, it was merely that they were not switched on to the supraliminal message they were receiving. The music was readily audible (so inherently supraliminal); anybody who went in with the knowledge the supermarket were trying to influence their decision-making process with music would not be affected by it (or if suitably contrary as I can be at times they might even be pushed in the opposite direction – “play French music at me, would ya”, I might say, as I swipe a bottle of Extra Special Piesporter from the shelves).

A seasoned visitor to Bordeaux knows what that view over the Latour vineyard can do for the soul, and the Cheval Blanc cellars, as wonderful as they are, do not instil a sense of awe when returning to them for the twentieth time. Even if they did, I am very aware of what the intent might be, and find it easy to resist. As a regular visitor to the region I therefore reject any suggestion that I might wander around, in a sense of awe, filled to the eyeballs with supraliminal messages. Yes, there are problems with the primeur system, everything from the veracity and validity of barrel samples to the timing of the releases and the pricing of the wines, but the region’s supraliminal messaging is easily identified, and the most readily rejected. Unless your favoured reviewer happens to be a cathedral-obsessed mutt trained by a Russian physiologist on his first ever visit to Bordeaux, that is. In which case, good luck to you with your 2018 buying decisions.

At the Decanter World Wine Awards

I went to London for the marathon earlier this week. No not that one. I’m talking about the marathon that is the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). A week (which in this case is a ‘working week’, meaning five days – I know some in the wine trade have a different definition of a ‘working week’) of tasting all of the Loire submissions to the 2019 Awards.

This was the 16th year for the Awards, and I am not sure how many years I have been judging on the Loire panel, but it must be seven or eight years now. I started off just doing a couple of days, at a time when the Loire panel would sit for perhaps three days in total. These days the Loire submissions have increased in number (as have submissions to the Awards in general) and both last year and this year the judging extended across five days. I try to participate for the entire Loire judging, and that is exactly what I did this year. The panel was chaired by Jim Budd (who needs no introduction), while my tasting colleagues were Nigel Wilkinson (once of the RSJ, home of London’s best Loire list, now retired) and Chris Hardy (of Charles Sydney Wines, and now undoubtedly the leading wine trade figure in the Loire Valley). The panel was the same across all five days.

The system at the DWWA, for those unfamiliar with it, is as follows. Wines are served in themed flights, anything from four wines to twelve, the principal themes being variety and appellation, sometimes nuanced by style, vintage or price. So we might have a dozen Muscadets, followed by a dozen Touraine Sauvignons, then a dozen white Sancerres, and so on. The tasters have all the information on appellation, vintage, price, residual sugar, alcohol and so on, but the blinding as to the domaine and cuvée is rigorous; I imagine anybody who attempted to unblind a wine by removing it from its bag, a cardinal sin, would never be invited back. Tasters don’t even get to handle the bottles, as everything is poured for you by the ‘red shirts’ as they are known. Our ‘red shirt’ was Abdel, who was a star.

DWWA 2019

All four panel members work their way through the entire flight, tasting and retasting as they see fit, writing notes, and awarding marks out of 100. Faulty bottles are always replaced during the tasting of the flight, no mean feat considering the number of wines being tasted in any one day and the logistics involved. A few words might be exchanged at this time (especially regarding faulty wines) but otherwise we keep our opinions to ourselves for the moment. Once all four of us have finished, it’s time for the panel chair to review the notes and scores, for discussion, and for the decision on a final score and a medal position.

Any judging system has strengths and weaknesses. One accusation commonly made about the system used here is that it is ‘tasting by committee’, which would I think be a fair accusation if the final score and position were achieved simply by taking an average of the four submitted scores. But of course that isn’t how it works; there is the opportunity for discussion, to advocate for each wine as you see fit, and the process varies from one wine to the next. If all four tasters are in close alignment – awarding scores, for example, of 86, 88, 88, and 89, all in the bronze medal category – then taking an average is not inappropriate (although an individual could still argue for a specific score if they wish). When the marks start to straddle medal categories, for example 86, 88 (both bronze), 90 and 91 (both silver) then the discussion becomes more important. We all revisit the wine, and the supporters of a bronze award may decide they have underscored the wine, and revise their marks upwards, or they may stick to their guns and persuade their colleagues that silver is too generous. And vice versa for the advocates of a silver medal. A lot of effort goes into ensuring each wine is given due consideration, and the right level is found.

If agreement can’t be reached, there are floating super-judges who can also be asked to chip in with an opinion. The super-judge system worked well this year, although sometimes the decision went against me, and sometimes for me. There was one wine on day two where half the panel were rooting for gold, while half (including me) were less eager, and an opinion from a super-judge nudged it over the line. I lost. But then a couple of days later we were in the same position with a different wine, with at least two tasters rooting for gold, and I was holding back, holding my ground, as I didn’t feel the wine was worthy of that merit. The super-judge came down in my favour. Vindicated! However the wines get there, though, all the gold medal winners are tasted again next week, by the super-judges, and can be knocked back down if not deemed worthy. I doubt that will happen with any of the Loire wines; we’re a careful lot!

The Loire did well this year, and while I can’t reveal anything about the result it won’t be giving too much away to say there were a number of really fine wines submitted, and a nice number of gold medals awarded. The success of recent vintages shone through; although there was frost in 2016 and 2017, the region has had several good vintages in a row, up to and including 2018 (most Muscadet and Sauvignon submissions come from the most recent vintage, for obvious reasons). And quality overall was consistent; although I don’t have any figures, I am sure we rejected fewer samples as simply substandard this year. And among the golds, there were some real superstar wines. Sadly, unlike that other more famous marathon, it takes a good few months for the results of this particular competition to be published. I hope it won’t be too long though; I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what theose superstar wines were.

Bordeaux 2018: Reports Schedule

I am currently beavering away typing up all my Bordeaux 2018 tasting notes, and synthesising my thoughts on the vintage in order to create my region-by-region tasting reports. For those who have missed it, I already started with my introduction to the 2018 Bordeaux vintage, featuring a report on the growing season (tropical humidity and mildew, and then a glorious three-month-long summer lasting right through to the harvest…..that covers it, although I do use a few thousand more words in my full summary), on the harvest, the vinifications, and some broad impressions on the style of the vintage and the wines. Most importantly (I am told), my 2018 report sees the return of Monsieur Propriétaire and his new sidekick, his biodynamic consultant, Vaquero Méjor Hobomüncher.

I also published my St Estèphe 2018 report today. It has been a fascinating and quite unique vintage in this appellation (and in others too, I have to say).

Here then are my plans for the remainder of my Bordeaux 2018 updates. These may be subject to change, but at the moment I don’t expect to deviate from this schedule (although in terms of sheer number of tasting notes week two looks pretty full on):

● Tuesday, April 9th – Bordeaux 2018 Vintage Summary (posted)
● Wednesday, April 10th – St Estèphe (posted)
● Thursday, April 11th – Pauillac
● Friday, April 12th – St Julien
● Sunday, April 14th – Margaux

● Tuesday, April 16th – St Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé
● Wednesday, April 17th – St Emilion Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru
● Thursday, April 18th – Pomerol
● Friday, April 19th – The Rest of the Right Bank (Castillon, Fronsac, satellites, etc)
● Sunday, April 21st – The Rest of the Left Bank (Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Moulis, etc)

● Tuesday, April 23rd – Pessac-Léognan Red Wines
● Wednesday, April 24th – Pessac-Léognan White Wines
● Thursday, April 25th – Sauternes, Barsac and other sweet wines
● Friday, April 26th – Primeur Picks, my choices, and summing up

To the City of Wine

April looms large, and so too do the primeurs. I’m here in Bordeaux for two weeks of tasting the 2018 barrel samples.

It is already looking like this is going to be an interesting two weeks of tasting, scribbling and scoring. It is a vintage which, after a very difficult start, still promises much, although I think anyone who imagines the wines will be like the deliciously fresh, fragrant and frankly very ‘digestible’ 2016s all over again is going to be diappointed.

The City of Wine

Although most of my days this week and next are taken up with château visits, today (Thursday 28th) and tomorrow (Friday 29th) I will be tasting with the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux at La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. This is the third new venue for this tasting in four years; initially it was at the Bordeaux football stadium (close to the Rocade and easy to get to), while for the last two years (or maybe three, my memory fails me) it has been in Hangar 14, a convention centre on the banks of the Garonne (less easy to get to for someone like me who tends to avoid driving into the centre of the city – there are no vineyards there). La Cité du Vin is very close to Hangar 14, so I am prepared for some jostling in the rush-hour traffic this morning. In the afternoon I am off to Margaux, to visit Château Margaux, Château Palmer, Château d’Issan and the like.

It is traditional at this early stage to include a snap of my timetable (pictured above). This usually invokes one of two responses, either (a) “oooh, nice line up of visits”, or (b) “oooh, pencil on paper, very old school”. Which one are you?

Primeurs Visits: The Double-Edged Sword

Next week I leave for two weeks of tasting in Bordeaux, looking exclusively at the 2018 vintage. My primeurs tasting trip seems to get longer with every passing year, necessary for two reasons. First, if I am going to succeed in getting to grips with the vintage, this means talking to proprietors and technical directors, quizzing them on the growing season, harvest and vinifications. Tasting at the primeurs, indeed any tasting trip, should be more than a race where victory falls to the critic who has tasted the largest number of samples. And so I always factor time for ‘chewing the cud’ into my visits. Secondly, as in previous years, the number of visits and tastings that I have to squeeze into my trip has expanded a little more. There’s always another château that wants to join the exclusive club of non-participation.

Visits in Bordeaux are a double-edged sword. It is fashionable for critics visiting the region to complain about them, and I have certainly been a dedicated follower of that fashion in years gone by. This is because the more visits I need to cram into a week or two of tastings, the longer the trip must be. The alternative is just to make shorter and shorter visits, which begins to encroach upon that ‘chat time’. One day last year, on the northern Médoc, starting at 8am, and finishing in the early evening, and skipping lunch (save for a quick sandwich between visits) I crammed sixteen visits into one day. It worked well, but it was hardly conducive to ‘relaxed’ tasting, and it’s not something I will be repeating during this year’s primeurs trip. Driving from one château to another (especially sixteen times) is also tiring, and all that stop-start driving (and remember, there are many hundreds of visitors to the region doing this) is hardly environmentally friendly.

Bordeaux 2017

On the other hand, the benefit of visiting a château is that you know the sample is gong to be in tip-top condition. While the cynic in me accepts there are many reasons why a château proprietor would prefer a critic to visit (to influence critics with their surroundings, or to influence through non-blind tasting, for example) one of the principal and very valid arguments is that it ensures sample quality. This is really important. If a château sends multiple samples, to a UGC tasting, to a négociant tasting, to a consultant’s tasting, to a tasting hosted by a PR body such as Cercle Rive Droite, they lose control over its quality. These aren’t finished wines, they are often drawn from the barrel one or two (or more) days prior to the tasting, and this combined with frequent small pours, sloshing the wine back and forth, contributes to earlier oxidation than you might expect. The serving temperature often isn’t optimal, and this also has a major impact on how the wine feels. There is at least one négociant tasting in Bordeaux I stopped attending because the samples often felt too loose, too warm, too grainy and too tired, sometimes with oxidation on top. Others, to be fair, such as the Dourthe tasting, always produce samples in perfect condition. As a regular visitor to the primeurs, I soon learnt which tastings to go to, and which to avoid.

To be fair, sample quality isn’t a problem unique to Bordeaux. I discovered a lot of wine that matched this description when tasting at the Salon des Vins de Loire earlier this year, including some brut de cuve samples from 2018 (so a little like unfinished primeur samples in Bordeaux) but also some finished wines. It suggests to me that making multiple repeated pours from a bottle using pour restrictors such as the Slo-Flo® pourer, in warm exhibition centres, lit with glaring fluorescent lights, might not be the best conditions in which to get acquainted with the newest wines. But, as I have hinted above, even bottles left unattended in the relatively cool and calmly lit cellars of a Bordeaux château that has agreed to host a generic tasting can succumb to this degradation. Maybe having two weeks stuffed full of ‘enforced’ château visits isn’t such a bad thing after all. Roll on the good quality samples!

The Latest Latour Releases

This week saw the latest round of releases from Château Latour, an annual event which has preceded the primeur tastings ever since Latour announced its withdrawal from primeur sales back in 2012.

The 2019 releases are restricted to just two wines, with none of the third wine selected for release at this time. The two wines are the 2008 Château Latour (£5,100 per 12) and the 2013 Les Forts de Latour (£1,650 per 12). The release price of the grand vin is at an 11% premium to that already on the market, continuing a practice established in prior releases. This premium reflects provenance, and the wine is still priced well below other currently available and more successful vintages such as 2005, 2003, 2009 and 2010. I retasted the 2008 Château Latour just last year, giving it a score of 96/100; while the vintage overall does not have a great reputation, the 2008 from Château Latour is a superb effort. I suspect, with the well-judged 11% premium, this will sell quite well. Not like hot cakes, admittedly, but it should certainly do better than last year’s release, the 2006 grand vin, which came with a much higher percentage premium.

Château Latour

As for the 2013 Les Forts de Latour, nobody needs reminding what a washout vintage this was. When I tasted the 2013 second wine back in April 2014 it was a decent effort for the vintage, although I could not stretch beyond a provisional barrel-sample score of 14-15/20 (it was back when I was still scoring out of 20). I haven’t tasted it since, but will hopefully do so when I visit Château Latour this April. Regardless of how it shows, however, it is difficult to imagine anything from the 2013 vintage flying out the door at the price asked here.

In the meantime, while I head out to taste the 2018 barrel samples from Château Latour next week, it will be years before any of these newest wines makes it to market based on the property’s late-release system. With some releases over the year’s having been met with a rather luke-warm response, I have often wondered for how long Château Latour would remain outside the primeur system. It must be a challenge to watch successful primeur sales pass you by and to rely solely on later, much more expensive sales of mature wines. I suspect the well-judged and hopefully successful release of the 2008 vintage will strengthen the team’s fortitude.

Get Ready for Peak Muscadet

We haven’t yet reached peak Muscadet, but this wine has certainly been rehabilitated in the eyes of many; that much was clear to me back in 2017 (I can’t believe it was two years ago already) when Decanter magazine not only decided to host a lees-aged Muscadet panel tasting, inviting me along as a panel member, but then went on to dedicate 13 pages of their June 2017 print edition to it. In the post-tasting discussion I made the comment that the tasting proved Muscadet’s perception as a simple wine you just knock back with oysters was dead in the water; when it made it to print that had been toned down a little and it was merely “outdated and should be put to rest”, but I think I prefer my original words.

Despite this resurgence in interest, and an obvious awareness that something important has happened in Muscadet in recent times, I see many still struggle to get to grips with the region and its wines. Jobbing wine writers now brave enough to dip their toes in the water often do little to demystify the region. This is perhaps inevitable if you are limited to writing about cheap and cheerful entry-level wines, all of which can be purchased off the shelves of a British supermarket, in the confines of a Sunday Supplement wine column. It can be difficult to spin a tale of tenacity, terroir and a ten-year élevage around such wines.

With that in mind here is my 7-point guide to getting up to speed with Muscadet. And I mean really getting up to speed, not just waffling on about Domaine de l’Ecu because (a) you’ve heard of it, (b) you like the labels and the wax capsules, and (c) you don’t realise those funky wines aren’t actually Muscadet.

1. Don’t start every conversation about Muscadet with a comment about the region’s decline in the 1970s. Yes it happened, but the smart vignerons weathered the region’s waning popularity thanks to the quality of their wines and they are still here, leading the pack. And the smart wine journalists and wine drinkers look to the wines of today, not yesterday. Nobody opens an article on Austrian wine with a reflection on the pros and cons of diethylene glycol.

2. Be mindful that there has not been a revolution in Muscadet, but an evolution. Its sudden resurgence is a false image created by the generalist press (I realise I sound like a left-wing activist when I write this), and reflects not a sudden shift in the region, but a sudden shift in the author’s awareness of it. The region’s current success can be traced back across not years, but decades. Several long decades, of hard work. Some vignerons with less familiar names, such as Bruno Cormerais, have played a big part in this, and deserve credit.

Peak Muscadet

3. To understand Muscadet’s modern-day diversity – it is no longer a name to solely be associated with oysters – think of Muscadet not as a wine, but as a vineyard or region. Nobody thinks of Burgundy, or even a Burgundy sub-region such as Chablis, as producing one style of wine, at one level of quality. And yet this is Muscadet’s fate. Most wine drinkers and wine hacks know there is basic Chablis, premier cru and grand cru Chablis, and while we can still intelligently talk of them all as ‘Chablis’, there is an innate awareness that these wines offer varying taste experiences, a range of quality levels, and they work well with different styles of food. So too with Muscadet.

4. The premier cru and grand cru equivalents in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine are the crus communaux. These wines do not come from a specific hill, like Chablis, but from within specified zones. Eligible vineyards within a zone are identified as cru communal candidates by vignerons, and checked out and signed off by local wine authorities. The vigneron is then beholden to work in a specified manner in the vines (lower yields, better maturity at harvest) and cellars (a longer élevage on the lees). These crus have their origins back in the 1980s (see, it is not a recent revolution). You can find wines from Gorges, for example, from the 1990s. Anyone who has hailed ‘the Muscadet revolution’ in the past five years should probably read this post.

5. Be ready to roll your eyes at the glacial pace at which French wine law adapts to the modern world. The reason this has been an evolution rather than a revolution is in part down to the French wine authorities which seem to work about two decades behind the vignerons they should serve. The first three crus were ratified in 2011. The next four hopefully this year. Try to think of them not by date of ratification, however, but by terroir, as I did in my recent Muscadet Crus Communaux Retrospective. For the solidity and substance of granite, go for Clisson and Château-Thébaud. For the vibrancy and cut of gabbro, go for Gorges and Mouzillon-Tillières. For the effusive charm and piquancy of gneiss and orthogneiss (and even amphibolite), go for Monnières-St-Fiacre. For the pungent weight of schist, go to Goulaine. There are nuances of course, but this is a good starting point.

6. Do not go on and on about oysters (or the other Muscadet clichés, the cling-clang of the marina, the call of the seabirds, and the briny sea breezes). Cru communal Muscadet, like grand cru Chablis, offers a much greater range of food-and-wine matching possibilities. Keeping it simple, drink any of the crus communaux wines, or any of the long-lees-aged wines made outside the crus (a few spring to mind, such as Trois from Domaine de la Pépière and Origine and Signature from Domaine du Haut Bourg), with anything you would drink top-end Chablis with. For me this means, as well as a huge variety of fish dishes, also chicken, guinea fowl, veal and pork in creamed sauces, various cheeses and crisp sandwiches*.

7. Also be ready to roll your eyes at efforts to make the most basic Muscadet more saleable by allowing the blending in of other varieties such as Chardonnay or Colombard. It’s like trying to make bottom-end Burgundy more appealing by allowing Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache in the blend for Bourgogne Rouge (actually that sounds rather attractive……OK, OK, I’m joking). I have long said that the solution to Muscadet’s image problem and the financial difficulties that face some vignerons will come from the top end (the crus communaux cuvées) dragging the region into the limelight, not from bottom-end manipulation where bulk wines sell for less than €1 per 75 cl. A sentence ridiculing this move should be mandatory in any article about Muscadet.

Stick to these seven rules, and when we finally hit peak Muscadet – which will presumably be when Robert Parker comes out of retirement to start up a new publication specialising in Melon de Bourgogne and its wines – we will all be able to roll our eyes together. In the meantime, I am off to choose another ten-year old Muscadet cru communal wine for tonight’s dinner, which at the moment is looking like free-range chicken breasts in a sauce of madeira and shiitake mushrooms. I’m thinking Monnières-St-Fiacre.

*maybe not

Say Hello to Haut-Bailly II

Véronique Sanders and the team at Château Haut-Bailly have announced a rebranding of their wines.

The most notable feature of this rebranding is a new name for the second wine La Parde de Haut-Bailly, which after 50 years under that label has been rechristened Haut-Bailly II.

The little-known third wine, previously labelled simply as a Pessac-Léognan, has been rebranded as HB.

The label of the grand vin, of course, remains unchanged. The new names come into effect with the 2018 vintage.

The next few years will see a lot of changes at this estate, which began an impressive programme of construction during 2018.

I look forward to seeing how that is progressing, and a first taste of the 2018 vintage, including Haut-Bailly II, at the primeurs in a few weeks time.