Muscadet, from evolution to revolution!
By Jean-Paul Burias - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 24 October 2022
With just a single grape variety planted over 8,000 hectares and producing only dry white wines, a cursory look at Muscadet might imply something simple. But the minute you taste the wines, suddenly the horizon opens up to complex terroir-driven offerings, underpinned by recognition of village-designated growths in 2011. The endorsement points to the quality of the wines, which should most certainly be on your to-try list.
With the waves of the Atlantic Ocean breaking within earshot and the banks of the Loire lining France’s longest river nearby, the birthplace of Muscadet ushers in the city of Nantes and its storied castle of the Dukes of Brittany. The location enhances wines whose true worth deserves to be fully recognised. Long maligned for the quality of its wines, the local wine industry has grasped the nettle and begun to claw the market back. With sales on the rise and improved price points, the appellation is regaining its market status. With a vineyard footprint of 8,000 hectares – which has declined in recent years – the appellation has held on to its ranking as France’s leading single-variety wine region. It is also the only appellation in the world made from Melon de Bourgogne, and has optimised its production potential, which boasts astounding variety. The defining traits of Muscadet-Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie are its freshness, finesse, aromas and mineral notes. The wines can be enjoyed when young, but also show good ageability. Caught up in this virtuous circle, they have been given a whole new lease of life. Aromatic, accessible and supple, they have become a magnet for new, young urban consumers.
After many years spent restructuring the vineyards in the early 2000s, growers were rewarded from 2011 onwards with official recognition for ten village-designated growths made to extremely stringent production standards – this paved the way for a resurgence across the region. The ten complementary geographical designations sit at the top of the Muscadet pyramid and the Nantes wine federation has deftly defined them in a single word: Clisson, power; Gorges, length; Le Pallet, lushness; Goulaine, harmony; Château-Thébaud, finesse; Monnières-Saint-Fiacre, fleshiness; Mouzillon-Tillières, complexity; La Haye-Fouassière, elegance; Vallet, richness; and Champtoceaux, silkiness. Each one offers complexity and ageability, stemming from extended lees maturation, low yields and the site-expressiveness of prime, varied vineyards. Long disparaged and pigeonholed as inferior, quick-drinking wines for pairing with oysters – which may well be remarkable but is also simplistic – the appellation now has its sights clearly set on the future, with characterful wines packed with freshness.
Château de la Preuille.
Christian Dumortier in his vineyards at Château de La Preuille.
Château de La Preuille: a great institution
Behind the superb feudal castle lie vineyards designed for excellence. Philippe and his brother Christian Dumortier, the eleventh generation of a family of winegrowers, fully embody the flavour of Muscadet. The name Preuille stems from the Latin petra or petrosus which means a stony, rocky place. The vineyard boasts outstanding granite soils that lend the wines their hallmark stamp, now incorporated into the appellation’s ten village-designated growths. “Since 1986, our aim has been to showcase the superior qualities of the grape varieties in the Nantes wine region – Melon de Bourgogne for Muscadet and Folle Blanche for Gros-Plant-du-Pays-Nantais”, explains Christian Dumortier. “Our different labels sell for very affordable prices, well below their level of quality”. Tête de Cuvée, for example, displays all the defining features of a top dry white wine, but at a fraction of the price of neighbouring appellations. “The vineyards hived off for the label are located on hillsides with outstanding sub-soils of porphyroid granite with two micas from Clisson”, says Dumortier. “Combined with old vines, these soils deliver low yields of around 30 hectolitres, but in return produce wines with lots of concentration”. The nose is subtle and encapsulates the Melon de Bourgogne variety. In the glass, the wine is a bright, golden colour then displays full body, complexity and length on the palate. This typicity is promoted by the fermentation process, which uses a very varied array of wild ferments naturally occurring on the grapes and not industrial yeasts. This highly expressive wine, whose incredible ageability is one of its defining features, can be found on the finest tables.
Tank cleaning duty for Aurore Günther
Vignobles Véronique Günther-Chéreau: the winning duo
Hard work, the drive for quality and family spirit are virtues that have been perpetuated for several generations on this renowned estate. Véronique Günther-Chéreau took over from her father in 1989 and was joined by her daughter Aurore, a trained winemaker. This efficient duo manages a 75-hectare vineyard that has been partly converted to organic winegrowing, across three estates recognised as village-designated growths – Château de la Gravelle in Gorges, Château du Coing in Saint-Fiacre-sur-Maine and Grand Fief de la Cormeraie in Monnières. “Wines showing minerality and freshness are experiencing a real resurgence”, comments Aurore Günther. “We are fortunate that the Muscadet brand is known worldwide and is associated with quality”. The mineral, floral, light wines offering good value for money compared with other French regions have fuelled export growth. “Melon de Bourgogne is the only grape variety that can be used to produce Muscadet, from primeur wines to village-designated labels, and this is a strength”, says Véronique Günther-Chéreau. “Different terroirs produce different white wines depending on the soil where the vines are grown. The wines pair well with light foods and they have everything it takes to grow in export markets. Customers are looking for a wine with guaranteed supply, no unreasonable price hikes or inventory issues that offer real consistency of quality”.
Château du Coing nestled among the vines.
Pierrick et Landry Pénisson at Domaine des Iles.
Domaine des Iles: building on Clisson’s legacy
Among the 10 village-designated Muscadet growths, Clisson is one of the appellation’s high-end names, covering 250 hectares and five villages. Ideally located south of the Loire estuary, Domaine des Iles is the perfect emblem for this increasingly popular growth. Established by Pierre Pénisson in 1985 on a small site covering a diminutive 0.50 hectares, it then benefited from the arrival of his two sons Pierrick and Landry after they studied viticulture in 2001. Now a family business with 7 full-time farm workers and seasonal workers, the estate has grown significantly over the years to its present-day footprint of 170 hectares. “Since 2003, we have been using sustainable techniques so that we can treat the environment with even greater respect and produce the highest quality”, says Pierre Pénisson. “Clisson dovetails perfectly with this approach. The selected vineyard sites produce light, fruity and aromatic wines”.
Damien Robert owner of Château de l'Epinay.
Château de l'Epinay: great consistency
Château de l'Epinay is located near beautiful leafy river banks and Saint-Fiacre-sur-Maine, the French village which has the highest ratio of vineyards to total acreage. Damien Robert began operating this family estate with his father in 1986 when he made a pledge to show respect for the environment by using earth-friendly, sustainable practices. His 23 hectares of vines, entirely destined for growing Muscadet, produce real gems sporting a pale gold hue and an appealing nose showing fresh fruit aromas, which deliver the characters of a very distinctive terroir on the palate. “My priority is to preserve my working environment by farming the vineyards sustainably”, he explains. “I try and balance my economic objectives and the expectations of my customers in terms of quality with respect for the environment”. Damien Robert follows this mantra religiously and welcomed recognition of Monnières-Saint-Fiacre as a village-designated growth. His estate lies within its boundaries. “It's a real advantage for the estate and a quality endorsement for customers”, he says. “Consumers are more inclined to come and taste our wines”.
Pascal Renou and his brother Jean-Luc with his son Jérôme at Domaine du Haut Fresne.
Domaine du Haut Fresne: enter Champtoceaux
On sloping hillsides along the Loire, the vineyards of Domaine du Haut Fresne are rooted in schist and gneiss which lend the wines freshness and minerality. They bask in a temperate climate, which is both sunnier and less windy than in Brittany with its Atlantic influence. Founded in 1959 by Michel Renou, the estate was taken over by two of his sons, Jean-Luc in 1984 and Pascal in 1991, before Jérôme, Jean-Luc's son, took over in 2008. The 86 hectares under vine have been certified High Environmental Value (HVE) since 2020. “We produce fruity wines, with good consistency from one year to the next and an affordable price tag of between €4 and €10”, he explains. “It is true that Muscadet is not very popular in France, with vineyard acreage and production declining, but we should welcome the arrival of a new generation of winegrowers in the Coteaux de Loire area who are perpetuating traditions”. The estate's range of 17 wines, spanning 10 appellations, is extremely palate-pleasing and will be further extended following recognition of the Champtoceaux growth. This is the only Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire growth and it allows the wines to masterfully move upmarket and provide customers with a real showstopper. The 2017 vintage, currently commercially available, was matured for 48 months in tanks.
Jérôme and Pascal Renou with the barrels at Domaine du Haut Fresne.
Claude Michel Pichon
Domaine Claude Michel Pichon: born into wine
Now a model for the appellation, Claude-Michel Pichon boasts a long-standing career in wine. After starting out as a cellar master and buyer for a trading company, he succeeded his father Raymond in 2009 at the helm of Château La Chevillardière and its 88 hectares of vines. He expanded the estate by buying up vineyards that had been mothballed due to lack of newcomers to take them over, and by planting new vines. “Our whites show distinctively fresh mineral notes and real typicity, like those of Château de La Chevillardière, which grow on granite and mica schist soils”, he says. “Muscadet needs to be better known and although we don't yet produce village-designated growths, there is no denying that the recognition is genuinely meaningful for the public who is not necessarily familiar with our wines”.
Domaine Claude Michel Pichon.
Drilling down into terroir
The image of Muscadet has long been understated, which has had consequences in terms of quality. The work carried out over the last few years, however, both in winery management and product marketing and promotion has helped reverse the trend. Many estates have been restructured, which has clearly dialled up the quality of the wines – their excellent value for money is also undeniable. Muscadet has carved out a place for itself as a genuine terroir-driven wine, showing unmistakable honesty. Though ideal as an aperitif, it is also a great classic with seafood and pairing partner for white meats and some cheeses. Ironically, the low price points of some producers have done it a disservice, leading consumers to wrongly associate it with an entry-level wine. The village-designated growths are helping to reverse this downward spiral and put an end to misconceptions, so that Muscadet can be placed on a par with other fine white wines. “The advent of the growths and enormous amount of work that has gone into recognising the local terroir have bolstered the reputation of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie”, feels Véronique Günther-Chéreau, owner of the namesake vineyards. “It is no longer considered as a simple bar wine but one suitable for gourmet food. It has established its pedigree, although in my opinion, there is still a lack of awareness of Muscadet in France, outside its home region”. Muscadet is multi-faceted and promoting its variety can only be viewed positively. Entry-level labels thrive alongside gourmet-food and age-worthy bottlings, along with the more recent village-designated growths. These have brought a real breath of fresh air to the wine proposition as trends favour dry, delicate, lower-alcohol, refreshing white wines which have all the requisite qualities to appeal to new consumers.
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