Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine
There is surely no better way to kick off the year than with another long lees-aged Muscadet cuvée from the trio (Marc Ollivier, Rémi Branger and Gwénaëlle Croix) at Domaine de la Pépière, one of the region’s most exciting names. Quatre is a new cuvée to me, something of a surprise as there was absolutely no hint of it being in the pipeline when I last tasted with Rémi and Marc (as I write this I have yet to meet Gwénaëlle, who only joined the team last year), which wasn’t that long ago. I got in touch with Marc and confirmed that that the wine has the same origins as Trois, but rather than three years on the lees Quatre sees out four years sur lie. Marc felt that this particular vintage, a nice one for the region, demanded the extra time.
As with last week’s wine from Jasnières this wine is another stop-off in my short journey through the grape varieties of the Loire Valley, and so my focus here is Melon de Bourgogne. Unlike Chenin Blanc, the genetic origins of Melon de Bourgogne are quite clear; this variety is the result of a natural cross between the Pinot family and Gouais Blanc. Both are important varieties when it comes to determining the origins of France’s grape vines, the union between these two having also spawned Chardonnay, Aligoté, Gamay Noir, Romorantin and at least a dozen others. Although the variety is also sometimes referred to as Muscadet, in keeping with the various appellations with which it is most plainly associated, the name Melon de Bourgogne obviously hints at a Burgundian origin, as do a number of synonyms including Plant de Bourgogne and Petit Bourgogne.
Indeed, this appears to be the case; the heartland for plantings of Melon appears to have been around Bonnecontre, Broin and Auvillars-sur-Saône, communes which sit on the right bank of the Saône, about twenty kilometres to the east of Beaune. The variety was once more widely planted throughout the region but, as was also the case with Gamay, edicts against its planting tended to marginalise it. These edicts were penned by nobility, in this case King Philippe II of Spain, a Count of Burgundy, probably also influenced by religious orders such as the Cistercians at Citeaux; it was in both their interests to restrict viticulture to their own noble plantings of Pinot Noir, and to prevent local peasants producing large volumes of perhaps inferior wine from heavy croppers such as Melon de Bourgogne.
While Melon de Bourgogne was slowly being sidelined in Burgundy it was becoming increasingly prevalent in the Loire Valley, in particular the Atlantic vineyards but also a little in Anjou. I have heard some growers suggest that the variety is poorly suited to limestone soils, which would perhaps explain why it seems to have gravitated towards older igneous and metamorphic terroirs such as those of the Massif Armoricain (and Jura, where I believe it also has a foothold) rather than the limestone terroirs of Vouvray, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Although it seems widely accepted that the variety came to prominence after the great frost of 1709, this may be little more than an assumption made many years after the fact, rather like the assumption that Sauvignon Blanc only arrived in Sancerre after phylloxera, when in fact the variety was present in the appellation many years before the devastation. In the case of Melon de Bourgogne there is evidence of an abundance of varieties named Bourgogne in the region as early as 1615, nearly a century before the evil winter of 1709.
So while Melon de Bourgogne has been here for centuries, unchanged, that is certainly not something we can say of Muscadet. This is a region that has seen cycles of ascendancy and decline. The most recent fall from grace came in the 1970s, but I feel – despite the recent difficulties within the region, namely the frost of 2008 and the many associated bankruptcies – that Muscadet is on the up once again. A key element in this renaissance is the recognition that Muscadet is not one sea of vines producing one style, but is in truth a broad vineyard with many different terroirs, and therefore different styles and capabilities. In this it is akin to Chablis, where it has long been accepted that some sites are of a lesser quality (Petit Chablis) while others offer something superior (the Premier Cru vineyards) or indeed entirely different altogether (the Grand Cru vineyards). The ‘regionalisation’ of the Muscadet vineyard, not just into subregions (such as Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu) but into Crus Communaux (Clisson, Gorges and so on) is the start of this process.
Long lees-aged wines such as Quatre, from Domaine de la Pépière, are perhaps a natural spin-off of this process. They do not in themselves belong to or even represent a new cru communal, nevertheless they are made following the same process, in this case lower yields, hand-picking, fermentation in neutral vessels (usually), avoiding malolactic fermentation (again usually, Les Vignerons du Pallet an exception to both these latter statements) and a stipulated long period of time on the lees, here four years but it can be longer, as is the case with Origine from Domaine du Haut Bourg where ten years is the norm. So how does 2010 Quatre, the latest release from Domaine de la Pépière, taste? The wine has a pale-straw hue in the glass. Aromatically it has a rather savoury sense of slightly bitter fruit on the nose, dried yellow-plum skin, with hints of preserved lemons and a white-pepper spice. The palate is cool and firm from the outset, showing a remarkable and tangible substance. There is a bitter, pithy pear skin character to the fruit, and a supple and polished presence. Both the pithy grip and the acidity, which feels rather subtle in this vintage, contribute to the structure of the wine. A long and grippy finish says something of the wine’s depth. This is still in a very primary phase at present, and I can’t help thinking it yet needs some time; if you are fortunate enough to have a bottle of this, hold off for a year or two at least. 16.5/20 (5/1/15)