The Pays-Nantais stretches from where the river Loire empties into the Atlantic to just east of Ingrandes, centred around the maritime city of Nantes. It had historically been a red wine producing region, until the severe winter of 1709 (which killed off many vines) and increasing demand for a neutral base white wine (to supply distillers in Holland) led to the widespread plantation of Melon de Bourgogne, which today is better known as Muscadet.
That same neutrality has allowed Muscadet, at its best, to be vivid expressions of otherwise subtle geological differences. The rich loam and clay topsoils of the region disguise their complex origins in the ancient Massif Armoricain, composed of both magmatic (granite, gabbro) and metamorphic (schist, gneiss, orthogneiss) rocks. Where the granite is quartz-rich, Muscadet is saline and crystalline; with more feldspar, it takes on density without losing verve. A similar distinction can be made between schist and mica-schist, the latter often producing more linear wines. On gneiss and orthogneiss, especially in warm vintages, Melon de Bourgogne harks back to its roots further east. And the dark gabbro outcrops around Clisson produce the most primeval wines of all, Ur-Muscadets which whisper of rocks and oceans across decades.
We work with four of the most dedicated growers in Muscadet: the terroirist Guy Bossard, who pipes in Bach to soothe his wines; the intensely hard-working and gifted Marc Ollivier; Michel Brégeon, who “spits into (his) body”; and the Luneau-Papin dynasty, now into its eighth generation with Pierre-Marie.
Good Muscadet has all the attributes necessary to be a food-friendly, versatile wine: intrinsic balance even when young, a structure based on acid, subtlety of flavour, and saline minerality. Raw oysters are the obvious match because the progression of flavours is so similar to what one would get from Muscadet: salinity, umami and creaminess, finishing with minerality. This holds true for almost all shellfish, raw or cooked. The crispness of Muscadet also makes it an ideal match for a whole range of fried seafood: British-style fish and chips (but go easy on the vinegar), tempura, ikan bilis.
Aged Muscadet, with its added complexity and roundness, throws up even more interesting matching possibilities. There is plenty of butter and cream in and around Nantes, and dairy-based sauces provide a rich backdrop for older, seemingly richer wines. This extends to poultry as well – e.g. a whole roasted chicken, napped with a creamy sauce made from its giblets, or just the legs, pan-fried in clarified butter until a rich brown on the outside. Smoked foods also work very well with long lees-aged Muscadet, with the wine’s autolytic flavours matching well against the smoke and umami .
Muscadet can and should be aged – aromatically they develop like Burgundy, structurally like Mosel Riesling. A heavily lees-influenced Muscadet (e.g. Luneau-Papin’s Semper Excelsior, Michel Brégeon’s late-bottled cuvees, Marc Ollivier’s Clisson and Château Thébaud) becomes creamy earlier on in life before striking a cosy balance with minerality; the leaner wines (e.g. Guy Bossard’s wines, Marc Ollivier’s Clos des Briords, Luneau-Papin’s Le “L” d’Or) are more likely to go through a dumb stage before emerging with a low-key sort of tension, finally becoming harmonious much later on.
A few quotes from three centuries of writing about Muscadet:
“La Chapelle-Hullin, La Haye, Le Loroux, Le Pallet, Maisdon et Saint Fiacre produisent des vins doux, légers, d’un goût agréable et qui se conservent assez bien.”
(La Chapelle-Hullin, La Haye, Le Loroux, Le Pallet, Maisdon and Saint Fiacre produce rounded, light and pleasant wines which keep very well)
– A. Jullien, Topographie de tous les vignobles connus, 1832
“1868… La récolte fut abundante sans excès. Le vin d’un haut degré et très bouqueté. Tous les hommes qui ont vécu la fin du siècle dernier ont bu quelques bouteilles de ce délicieux 68. Il s’est conservé 30 ans en bouteilles sans s’amoindrir.”
(1868…The harvest was abundant, but not overly so. The wine was potent and very aromatic. Everyone who lived at the end of the last century drank many bottles of the delicious 1868. It lasted 30 years without diminishing)
– J. de Camiran, Le Vignoble du Pays Nantais, 1937
“As Muscadet ages, it rediscovers its roots in Burgundy.”
– J. Friedrich, A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire, 1996
“Some bottles age beautifully for 20 years or more.”
– D. Lillie, Art of Eating No. 85, 2010