Thursday, December 7, 2023

Muscadet & Affordable Wine

In his 1951 book, Wines of France, Alexis Lichine had this brief comment about Muscadet: "Pleasant and dry, the wines are most appealing with oysters and sea food."

Not much there to entice a reader to Muscadet, but then, Lichine added this interesting tid bit: "Prior to the control laws (no doubt, meaning AOC regs.), they (Muscadet) were openly blended with Chablis, to stretch the supply of that scarce and famous wine." Who knew?

Nearly three decades later, Lichine, the eminent wine man, upped his game on Muscadet with two pages in Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France.  Still not much, but Lichine does give a more thorough explanation of Muscadet, the Loire white wine, produced near Nantes, that's well known to French wine drinkers.  

Muscadet of Nantes 

Nantes is the last major city along the Loire, before the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Closest to the ocean are the sub regions Muscadet Pays Nantais and Muscadet Cotes de Grandieu.  Northeast of Nantes is Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire. Together, these three small Muscadet zones are known more in local markets than in export.  

Loire River at Nantes

Closer to Nantes is Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, with 75% of the vineyards, named for the Maine River that flows north past Nantes and the smaller Sevre that connects with the Maine just south of Vallet. The influence of all this water, combined with a variety of soils, makes Muscadet a terroir driven white wine.

Yet in 1979, American wine drinkers were still not that familiar with Muscadet,  despite its popularity in France, and the region being granted AOC status in 1936, as one of France's early approved appellations.  

But Lichine's expanded comments did help popularize the wine in America. Born in Russia, Lichine moved back and forth between France and England, while recognizing the growing potential for wine sales in the United States.

Today, despite Lichine's efforts, Muscadet struggles to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market.  Blended low-cost whites (and reds) are becoming more common and cheaper, while Chardonnay is still the wine to knock out of first place. 

Muscadet doesn't pretend to be as complex as Chardonnay, although since 1990, some producers add 10% Chardonnay to help Muscadet appeal to more sophisticated consumers. Nor does Muscadet claim to have the flavor profile of Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that's holding its own in the top ranks of white wines.


Although it sounds like Muscadet could be the name of a grape, perhaps part of the Muscat family, Muscadet wine is made from Melon de Bourgogne, a grape of Burgundy origin.                                 

Banned from Burgundy, along with Gamay, in the 17th century, but adopted in the western Loire by Dutch traders, Melon was mainly used by the Dutch to fuel the distillation in Holland of brandewijn (brandy).  The Burgundy connection makes sense since Melon is related to Chardonnay, and shares some of the same aromatics and flavors like ripe apples, pears and citrus.                  

Until ampelographers sorted out the mistake, a lot of California Pinot Blanc was, in fact, made from Melon. Identifying grapes in the vineyard is not always easy, as berries can look similar and a close inspection is needed to determine leaf shape and design. Years ago, growers and winemakers in northern Italy believed that what they thought was Chardonnay turned out to be Pinot Blanc.  

Affordable Wine

One of the positive things about Muscadet is its good value for the price, about $20 or less.  So, a fitting way to close this post is with a few words on affordable wine. 

Andrew Jefford, a columnist for Decanter magazine, had some interesting things to say about price/quality in a recent issue. Jefford maintains that "ultra wines" like red Burgundy and first growth Bordeaux deserve their high prices, but only the wealthy can afford them. So, he said that, maybe, there's another way for the consumer to benefit from the "ultra" connection.

For those who don't have the big bucks to buy a wine like Ch. Lafite, Jefford said they could look to a "Bordeaux first growth, whose owners also sell $10 Chilean wine...and Corbieres." Lafite distributes Los Vascos from Chile and Ch. d'Aussieres, Corbieres, a red blend, from Languedoc, consisting of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Carignan, although the latter is slowly disappearing from Corbieres.

Perhaps there is a winery patron in Burgundy or Bordeaux that would be interested in adding Muscadet to their portfolio.

Next blog: Portugal

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