Reviving a classic: where oh where did Muscadet ever go?
Muscadet was the white wine of the traditional old English wine bar scene thirty or so years ago. Crisp, acidic, refreshing and – crucially – very cheap and plentiful, it had a lot going for it. Then suddenly, it didn’t. From the mid 1990s, not helped by a run of poorer vintages exacerbated by over-cropping and complacency, sales of Muscadet in this country at least nose-dived.
This is a shame, because when done well, all those qualities Muscadet had in yesteryear are still evident today. And with the help, ah-hem, of some global warming, Loire valley vintages are becoming a bit more reliable and here in the Pays Nantais, closer to the Atlantic, there is slightly less frost risk than further inland towards the likes of Sancerre, where Sauvignon Blanc reigns supreme.
No out here in the west there’s almost a monoculture of a curious old grape called Melon, often referred to as Melon de Bourgogne (even if it has little to do with Burgundy these days except for the origin story, or melons for that matter).
There are few wine regions so dominated by one variety but this area around the mouth of the Loire River is one. One old synonym for Melon is Gamay Blanc and it shared the vitriol afforded to Gamay by the vinous patriarchs of Burgundy, being banned in its motherland at various stages throughout history. It is actually a natural cross from Pinot Noir (plus Gouais Blanc) so comes with some pedigree, not that people knew or cared back then.
But it found a welcoming home in the Loire, where it has been cultivated since medieval times. It enjoys the relatively cool climate, which combines with the grape’s natural ability to retain acidity to deliver wines with awesome, razor-sharp freshness.
In recent times Muscadet has staged a mini revival, partly because it is now excellent value but also because there are younger winemakers finding fewer barriers to entry and more scope to experiment.
One such young winemaker is Frédéric Guilbaud, who we’ve worked with now for many years thanks to a chance recommendation by an Irish cider maker (yes, it’s a strange trade this). Frédéric’s family has the prestigious Château de la Bretonnerie but he wanted to forge his own path, with modern styles (and packaging) for Muscadet. He typically makes it in the broader ‘sur lie’ style, which means the juice has spent some months (typically six) resting in tank in contact with the ‘lees’, or the dead yeast left over after fermentation. This imparts a bready, smoky flavour and broadens and softens the wine’s texture – useful for a style of white wine that is usually quite acidic.