Loire 2020: Muscadet & More at Nouvel Ancrage
In my first report on my tastings at Nouvel Ancrage, a day of tasting mostly Muscadet at Château de la Frémoire, hosted by the Fédération des Vins de Nantes, I focused on more than 30 wines from the region’s seven established and three as-yet-unratified crus communaux, including wines from vintages as recent as 2018, back to 2010. In this second report I focus solely on the 2020 vintage, taking in all the latest releases mostly from the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation, although all of the Muscadet appellations are represented.
Before I return to the 2020 vintage now is a good time to reassess the state of play in the world of Muscadet. During the past two decades I have witnessed this misunderstood and not infrequently derided region continue a slide which threatened destitution. The 2008 frost had arguably the greatest impact; at the time this was the most significant frost since 1991, and it came after two small vintages in 2006 and 2007, the latter having also been blighted by mildew. A large number of vignerons, already surviving on a wing and a prayer, threw in the towel; the area of actively tended vineyards dropped by close to 5,000 hectares in the space of one year.
Key to this disaster were the tiny revenues generated for the vigneron by the sale of Muscadet, which at the time averaged less than €1 per litre; this was (and still is to an extent) a region where survival depended on volume. If the volume wasn’t there, beaten down through mildew or frost, the business was simply not viable. This low value per bottle reflected over-production and a low-quality image (the latter often propagated by the generic wine press, who have been slow to catch up with developments in the region). The former was being sorted out, in one of the most painful ways imaginable, by frost’s destructive powers. The answer to the latter came from within the region, as local vignerons set about redefining Muscadet as a region rich in different styles, through the development of the crus communaux, a movement born back in the 1990s.
Lift quality at the top end, change the image, and eventually that rock-bottom price will have to move. It was a better solution than introducing Chardonnay to the appellation, which the region’s négociants favoured (and which has since been granted – generic Muscadet can today include up to 10% Chardonnay).
Today the results of this work within the region are tangible. Most obviously we have the crus communaux, wines built around long-lees aging (a minimum of either 18 or 24 months, depending on the cru) and sold at a premium price compared to their non-cru counterparts, which provide both new interest and quality for drinkers, but also better income for vignerons. While the area planted to vines has continued to slowly decline over the past decade, it is now relatively stable, especially so when considered in the context of the recent run of destructive frosts in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2021, all of which were on a par with 2008. This is now a much more resilient vineyard, manned by committed vignerons who do not give up in the face of frost, but who instead invest in more anti-frost measures. This success is in part reflected in increased vineyard land values, which between 2012 and 2019 have risen by 26% and 25% in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine and Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu respectively, comparable with the 21% seen in Sancerre, and putting Vouvray (no change) and Chinon (8% decline) to shame (I suspect these figures will slide back again during the Covid years, but with no figures yet published in 2021, this remains to be seen).