Years ago on a bright seventy degree afternoon, moments after tying off our boat in the Camargue’s picturesque Marseillan port, I fell in love with Muscadet and its Melon de Bourgogne grape lounging in a simple oyster restaurant’s tiny outdoor courtyard. It was a magical few hours. I was taken by the wine’s satiating freshness, crisp acidity, saltiness, vibrant fruit, and mineral qualities that performed as comfortably as mignonette sauce next to oysters. So when I sat down to lunch at Island Creek Oyster Bar with the Loire Valley Wine Bureau last week to kick off Muscadet May in Boston, the early May sunshine combined with a lineup of nine different examples of Muscadet to stir up soothing memories of past oyster/muscadet revelry. This time, a small group of wine writers and restaurant trade indulged in three courses of deftly handled Boston seafood paired with Muscadet from a range of vintages and terroir. The mid day respite advanced my grasp of the truths and untruths of Muscadet’s “sur lie” designation and generated new enthusiasm for aging Muscadet through patient cellaring.
At least two thirds of the Muscadet presented at lunch sold for $11-$18, which is neither unusual nor an exception. I never understood how some pretty sharp winos want nothing to do with these wines, curiously turning up noses at their mention. The fact is Muscadet supplies the world with superb food friendly white wine values offering a reasonably priced restaurant option, age-worthiness, and high quality drinking by the caseload. The idea of laying away $15 wine for 15 years or more might seem strange, but shortly you will see how three rereleased wines from 1995,1999, and 2000 performed. These older wines we drank last week were all very recently purchased at retail (Astor Wines & Spirits and elsewhere in NY) by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau representatives. They were late released or rereleased by wineries that understand most Muscadet is consumed early and are motivated to help consumers experience the amazing transformation of cellared Melon Bourgogne.
I am often amused by the French in this one regard; adhering to or violating self imposed regulations as it fits the moment. In the first flight of wines, only the 2010 Domaine de la Louvetrie Sevre et Maine, with great fruit definition and the richest mouthfeel of the three, had “sur lie” noted on the bottle. When I started drinking Muscadet, I stuck with sur lie label designated wines because only the best sub-appellations are permitted by French authorities to use it on the label. It’s a good rule of thumb and reliable method for purchasing and experimenting with Muscadet. But I was curious and asked our Loire Valley host whether any other wines in the first flight saw lees contact despite the missing label designation. That’s where things turned deroutant.
Besides the appellation restrictions, regulations further dictate the wines sit on their lees until the winter following the harvest to be bottled without any racking somewhere between spring and late fall of that same year. Longer or shorter exposure to the lees or bottling dates disqualify label designation. But some producers extend the lees exposure and bottling date beyond the allowable window, making great wines that have creamier texture and fuller flavor, and are fine leaving the sur lie designation off the label. Some simply violate this regulation by including the label designation after leaving the wines in contact with their lees, bottling on a time table of their own discretion, and dismissing regulations with a characteristically care-free and dismissive French hand wave.
Seeking flexibility or the chance to share the truth, there is a movement by Muscadet’s Crus Communaux to extend the permissible contact and bottling period to 17-24 months, aligning with the actual practice of many of the best producers. In any event, while the French authorities argue this “oh so tres important” detail, it’s not as easy as I once thought to understand whether or not a wine is truly made sur lie simply by reading the label. Tres tragique!
Each of the recent vintage wines was immensely satisfying, but the real story line of this afternoon was Muscadet’s exceptional performance at various stages of bottle age. I heard about this cellar worthiness, but never had the opportunity to drink old Muscadet until now. It’s mind boggling to think you can go down to your favorite wine shop with $25 in your pocket, or lay $12 wines away for decades, and experience the magic of advancing well constructed white wine. Here are the three older wines and my notes:
Deep yellow color revealing the oxidation that is also evident on the nose. But the age has not sacrificed the underlying acidity, wet rock, or fruit core and the wine shows crispness inside an ultra rich mouthfeel. Exceptionally long finish. It’s masquerading as a distant cousin to Muscadet, offering hints of Sherry and aged Burgundy character. A wild and unique wine that is riveting from the first sip forward, but you have to like oxidation to fully enjoy this wine.
This was my favorite wine of this older flight—and of the entire lunch. It was simply perfect; serious, classy, pointed flavors and aromatics and a lively balance that showed off the knitting of age and youthful vibrancy all at once. The nose wreaked of pronounced slate. There were tropical fruit flavors delivered to the palate in regal fashion. The age of this wine has not deteriorated its vibrancy or focus, and oxidation was barely noticeable. There is simply no other $25 wine that I can think of that offers this much complexity and balance in such a classy way. For the price, it is worth buying up every last bottle that Astor has in stock. At its rate of development, you have at least another decade or two of dreamy drinking.
Little evidence of bottle age in the flavors and aromatics except for a tiny, tiny touch of oxidation. This wine was held and then bottled at the ripe old age of seven. There is serious mouthwatering salinity and citrus notes. It drinks like a baby. I have no idea how it will fare in the bottle, but there is simply no evidence of age yet. It is completely reminiscent of delicious young Muscadet. Such an anomaly and mighty surprise.
Enjoy your Muscadet, both young and old, sur lie or not. It’s cheap enough, always, to buy by the dozen with six for now and six for much, much later. If you live in Boston, enjoy Muscadet in May at these participating wine shops and restaurants:
Petit Robert Central
Petit Robert Bistro (South End)
Petit Robert Needham
Gaslight Brasserie du Coin
Island Creek Oyster Bar
Union Bar and Grill
Happy Muscadet May!