When I started this series of “Loire Misunderstood” posts with my comments on herbaceousness in red wines I had maybe a handful of topics to cover. A week or two later and that list has grown somewhat; it is now as long as my arm! I was going to continue ticking off my list in this second post by tackling another Loire red wine misconception, but instead – having just returned from a couple of days in Muscadet country – it is to this most misunderstood and maligned wine region I turn next.
Wherever you are reading this, I can guarantee you have at least heard of Muscadet, even if you have never even seen a bottle or tasted the wine. It used to be one of those ubiquitous wine list staples, the name itself becoming a byword for a light, breezy, inoffensive white quaffer. A few decades ago the UK fell in love with it; plantings increased dramatically and production soared, but ultimately quality fell. Eventually (in the UK at least) the name became associated not with something fresh and fun, but something watery and weak. A joke wine. A wine to be avoided, if you valued the enamel on your teeth. Prices plummeted. Generalising wildly, this remains the overarching view of Muscadet (in the UK at least), and although the UK remains an important market in terms of volume, the region’s vignerons are usually much happier selling to the USA and Japan (two other very significant markets) where they can at least get a decent price.
A quick aside; I wonder if there is a lesson in here somewhere for the producers of Prosecco, a word which – as ‘Muscadet’ once did – has entered the lexicon of non-geek UK drinkers (and maybe elsewhere too?). I suspect few of these new Prosecco fans could name any other Italian DOC/DOCG (except perhaps Chianti) but the word Prosecco trips off the tongues of more and more drinkers in recent times. I have heard it name-checked as an after work tipple, and seen it necked back at midday on a train, as I had the misfortune to share a railway carriage with a large hen party on the way to a weekend of drinking (their food match in this case was several bags of Haribo confectionery). Let’s hope the Prosecco producers don’t fluff it up as others have done in the past. But I digress; this is not a story for me to concern myself with here. Back to Muscadet.
If you were to take a straw poll of drinkers, asking for their opinion of Muscadet, I think you might get answers along these lines. The wine is:
1. Cheap, because it should be, because it’s tasteless, characterless wine.
2. It’s lean and acidic, maybe a result of poor ripening in a cool climate, high volume cropping, and a careless approach to viticulture.
3. It’s made for drinking with oysters. Or other weird seafood (last week I tasted sea urchin for the first time – haven’t seen that in my local Aldi or Lidl!) nobody eats. Therefore there’s little point in buying it, as I don’t like oysters. Or I do, but I don’t eat them at home. Or I prefer Chablis. Or Champagne.
4. It’s a simple wine made for drinking young. Avoid buying the 2011 vintage, it’s too old; stick with the 2012s. Old Muscadets aren’t good; they certainly don’t taste like Muscadet any more.
That’s a lot of negativity. And before you decry my pastiche of the Muscadet critic, my imagination is not running wild. I heard some (not all, thankfully!) of these criticisms coming not from the mouths of wine drinkers polled on the street, but from UK wine experts – writers, critics and journalists – who accompanied me on a trip to Muscadet last week. I would disagree with all of the points above. But I’m only going to tackle one here, and let’s start with oysters.
To be honest, I do think Muscadet is the perfect oyster wine. Others have a different opinion; the inhabitants of Nantes, for example, actually regard Folle Blanche (otherwise delightfully known as Gros Plant de Pays Nantais – sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?) as the ideal oyster wine. In Bordeaux they often pour Pessac-Léognan, naturally. At a rather crazy soirée at Château La Fleur de Boüard a few years ago, hosted by proprietor Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, there were only red wines for drinking. Ugh. But for me it is Muscadet, every day.
That does not mean, however, that Muscadet only works with oysters. Or even only with seafood. Muscadet has changed; there are intra-appellation differences, different soil types giving very different wines, and new crus communaux (if you find the term confusing, just think ‘crus‘ or even ‘premiers crus‘ – this is, essentially, what these new zones are) which yield wines with unique characters and richer substances. The light, zippy, saline bite of a wine from serpentinite or amphibolite (both igneous rocks) is delightful with oysters. But other wines, richer wines from gabbro, gneiss, orthogneiss or the richest of all, granite, will happily see off any shellfish, and also white fish including – in the past week, in Nantes – sea bass and john dory. Step up to the crus communaux, wines made from older vines, with lower yields, aged sur lie typically for two years, and you have wines that work well with white meat, light game meats such as guinea fowl, veal and foie gras (I was in a minority on this one, but it worked for me). Once you move to the extremes of styles coming out of the region you have wines that defy the name Muscadet altogether. Take Cuvée Bruno, from Bruno Cormerais, poured for me blind by David Cobbold in Angers a couple of years ago; this wine had me guessing the grape as Chenin Blanc, Romorantin or even Verdelho before somebody clicked it had to be Melon de Bourgogne. These wines are rewriting the Muscadet rule book.
These experimental wines, and the crus communaux wines, are to generic Muscadet what Le Clos and Valmur are to generic Chablis. They are clearly of the same family, but they operate on a very different level. Chablis might be your choice for fish cakes on a Tuesday evening, but Le Clos would surely be better suited to faison à la Normande served for Sunday dinner. These different purposes do not invalidate either style; they are both, we would hopefully agree, ‘Chablis’. And a generic Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie would be fine on Thursday with a salad of dressed crab, but with roasted guinea fowl on Saturday evening a bottle from Clisson, one of the first three crus communaux to be ratified by the INAO (six more are set to follow), would be my choice.
So, can we please get over this misinformed, blinkered view that Muscadet is just one style of wine, that works with oysters, and nothing else? Because, quite simply, such a view is about ten years out of date.