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back with oysters was dead in the water; when it made it to print that had been toned down a little and it was merely “outdated and should be put to rest”, but I think I prefer my original words.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.
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.