Loire (I): Muscadet
As a whole, the Loire valley isn't as fashionable as it should be, and no other region within the Loire suffers as much as Muscadet. This is the largest part of the Loire and the high-volume, restrained, acidic, relatively low alcohol wines don't fit into international trends. But visiting the area I discovered not only its beauty but also the variety, quality, and immediacy of its wines.
Muscadet is the most westerly of the Loire's many wine regions. Located not far from the Atlantic Ocean, the climate is maritime. This wet, ocean influence is also felt in the food, for the wines of Muscadet pair perfectly with fish and seafood. The largest and highest quality of the region's appellations is Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, named after two rivers that flow south and south-east out of the Loire. Here, the variety of volcanic and marine soils lend the wines a lean, mineral texture - a concentration that belies the lack of aromas. There are also a number of small appellations rarely found outside the region, each with their own subtly distinctive character.
the grape variety
The local grape variety now seems to have three names: the traditional Melon de Bourgogne, which indicates its Burgundian origins; Melon Blanc, which distances the variety from Burgundy; and the even simpler Melon. It's very rarely grown outside Muscadet, mainly because it doesn't taste of very much. At its simplest, it's boring but refreshing because of its naturally high acidity - which is great on a hot summer's day. (As an aside, anyone doubting climate change should visit the Loire. Historically, it's been difficult to ripen grapes; when I was visiting it was 36 degrees.) At its best, however, Melon produces wines with a surprising intensity and depth of flavour with an acidity that enables the wines to age for a few years.
The neutrality of the Melon grape means that many producers let their wines stay on the lees until around March after the vintage. The lees are the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation, and they give the wine body, structure, and complexity, with aromas of biscuits and nuts. Expect to see sur lie on most bottles of Muscadet, especially those exported.
I made a point of visiting Domaine de l'Ecu, the producer to have done more than anyone to promote the diversity and quality of the Muscadet region. Loire producers have been pioneers in promoting organic and biodynamic winemaking and Domaine de l'Ecu have been chemical-free since 1972 and biodynamic since 1998. There were originally five co-owners, but now Fred Niger is solely in charge.
Their most famous wines are based on the range of soils in Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, with photographs of each soil on the label. The Gneiss 2015 (€9.50; ✪✪✪✪) is quite neutral, with the high acidity and mineral texture expected from the region. The Orthogneiss 2015 (€10.65; ✪✪✪✪✪) is more floral and expressive, lightly nutty, but still with that dry, mineral, acidic finish. Finally, the Granite (€10.65; ✪✪✪✪) is richer, creamier, and leafy.
Domaine de l'Ecu also produce a series of select, beautifully-labelled wines. This range includes an unusual Muscadet called Taurus, which is aged in Burgundy barrels: it's rich, creamy, slightly oxidated, and fabulous (€24; ✪✪✪✪✪✪). Even more unexpectedly, there are two red wines; the Rednoz (€12.50; ✪✪✪) is made using carbonic maceration from Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape which I don't think quite works on its own in the Loire as it results in green, herbaceous aromas. In contrast, Mephisto (€25.50; ✪✪✪✪✪), made from Cabernet Franc, Loire's signature grape variety, is much more successful with smoky, spicy, meaty, perfumed, and red fruit aromas, with a long, peppery finish. This was the first Cabernet Franc tasted on my Loire trip, with many more to come ...