Domaine de la Louvetrie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie
Le Fief du Breil 2005
Recently I have been tasting many more wines totally blind than I am used to, and it has certainly been humbling. This change is the result of a recent kitchen makeover, a serious operation which included the installation of a wine cabinet, with a storage capacity of more than 40 bottles. Now fully stocked with a mixture of wine samples, mature bottles from the cellar and inexpensive midweek bottles from the Loire and beyond, with everything in it ready to drink, it makes pulling a bottle for tasting and/or drinking extremely easy - so in recent weeks even my ten-year-old son has been able to choose a bottle and pour me a glass for a blind assessment. And as I said, it has been humbling. I recently mistook a barrel-fermented Languedoc white for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, although in my defence it was only partly fermented in oak, and even when I returned to it with that knowledge I still saw no trace of it. And that was just one of several such gaffs. You can perhaps imagine my relief when I recently identified a Bordeaux as at least being from that region, even if I didn't get much further than that.
It all goes to show the value of the label in determining how we interpret a wine. I suspect this is because we build up a mental library of how wines are supposed to taste, and then go looking for those flavours once we have seen the label. So in Chablis we look for minerals, flowers, a more honey-tinged texture in mature bottles from suitable vineyards, and we would be surprised by overt oak, whereas for New Zealand Chardonnay oak would be the norm, often with an explicit barrel-ferment character, giving us aromas of fennel, butterscotch, toffee and so on, alongside the scents of tropical and stone fruits. And this would no doubt vary from taster to taster, as suggested by Professor Barry C Smith in his article Is a Sip Worth a Thousand Words on the value of the tasting note, in World of Fine Wine (Issue 21, page 114). Smith notes that certain terms crop up repeatedly in tasting notes from the big critics; Jancis Robinson frequently describes "crunchy fruit", Michael Schuster uses "gravel" a lot, whereas Robert Parker often finds "Asian spices". Clearly the individual critics in question are pulling these phrases from their own mental dictionary of flavours and terms, a dictionary that they have built up over time, the product of years of tasting experience.
One wine that once defeated my own dictionary of tasting terms was Muscadet. The first time I tasted it was within sight of the label, and it was from a good producer. And yet, without any experience of the style, and without any experience of Melon de Bourgogne, Muscadet's grape variety, I certainly found myself looking at a blank chapter in my wine lexicon. The wine did not really taste like wine I had tasted before; Melon de Bourgogne is known for its neutrality, which is why growers have more success leaving the wines on their lees for extended periods of time. It was a subtly flavoured wine, and I had to search for the wine's character, and on the first occasion without much success I think. But with time the lexicon has been populated; sea salt, citrus peel, minerals, stones, flower petals, all can show their face in Muscadet. And just as important is the wine's structure, bracing and fresh with firm acidity, sparkle and life. This is just the case with this wine, the (20/10/08)Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie Le Fief du Breil 2005, although it also has a little fatness which perhaps reflects a slightly warmer vintage. On inspection it has a pale and shimmering hue, and the nose has plenty of character, with aromas of crushed rocks with a little sherbetty edge, alongside notes of thyme and sea salt. As I have commented it is rather fat on the palate, with a supple weight which I rather like, although it is perhaps not entirely typical and some hard-core Muscadetophiles might not take to it because of this. It has a lovely fresh character though, good definition and vigour, plenty of acidity and plenty of substance. That crushed rock-minerally note comes through on the palate here too. It is a delightful wine which worked well for me both as an aperitif and with a subsequent fish course. And it also reminded me that notes of herbs, in this case thyme, can ocasionally be found in these wines. Very good indeed. 17.5+/20