Muscadet Sèvre et Maine
When it comes to quality many appellations, classifications and regions have a ‘pyramid’ arrangement. Take, for example, St Emilion, which has a long-established but evolving classification system which features large numbers of grand cru estates at the broad base of the pyramid, fewer grand cru classé estates halfway up the pyramid, and even fewer premier grand cru classé names right at the top. The most famous châteaux sit pretty at the very tip of the quality pyramid, looking down on the ‘ordinary’ châteaux that support them.
So what, you might ask, has this to do with the Sèvre et Maine region of Muscadet?
The answer to this question is that, at first glance at least, Muscadet appears not to obey this pyramid rule. The Muscadet ‘quality pyramid’ is inverted; the best wines in the Muscadet region are all found within the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sub-regional appellation, and yet this appellation also accounts for the majority of the region’s production. Indeed, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine accounts for between 75% and 80% of all Muscadet produced (which explains why I have chosen to look at this appellation first in my guide, ahead of its peers and neighbours), leaving just 20% for all the other appellations. This ‘excluded’ 20% includes the other two other sub-regional appellations, Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu and Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, which while they have their quality hotspots are not as consistently and broadly successful as Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, and of course there is also the basic entry-level Muscadet appellation.
This is an unusual arrangement, and it is one which should cause a few eyebrows to raise. Think for a moment what our reaction would be if a new St Emilion classification promoted 80% of the appellation’s châteaux to the level of premier grand cru classé, alongside Château Cheval Blanc, Château Ausone, Château Angélus and Château Pavie, leaving only a handful of grand cru and grand cru classé châteaux behind (who would then probably sue).
There are, however, two important points to bear in mind as your eyebrows hit the ceiling and bounce back to earth in response to this apparent discrepancy. We are not comparing like with like here. First, an appellation is not the same as a classification, and perhaps it would be fairer to compare the unquestionable dominance of the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation within its region with the same position of superiority that St Emilion holds over its satellite appellations, rather than with the St Emilion classification. In other words, if the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation was St Emilion, the other ‘left over’ Muscadet vineyards would be the St Emilion satellites. Fair enough. But then the question arises, what analogy do we have – if any – for St Emilion’s well developed and undoubtedly meaningful internal classification system? Is there really no further distinction of the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine vineyard? Where are the Muscadet region’s equivalents of the grand cru classé and premier grand cru classé châteaux?