Pampered Muscadets Show Loire Valley’s Gains in French Market

Cellars of the Loire Valley
Chinon red wine is made from cabernet franc grapes in the yellow limestone cellars of the Loire Valley, France. The vineyards of the Loire extend from the region of Sancerre through Tours westward to Nantes and the Atlantic. Photographer: Marc Jauneaud/InterLoire via Bloomberg

The average wine drinker’s familiarity with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and a few wines from the Rhone and Alsace usually does not extend very far into France’s Loire Valley. Grape varieties with names like folle blanche, melon de bourgogne, pineau d’Aunis, and grolleau do not leap to mind when considering what to have with dinner.

Given a few hints and nudges, one might come up with Muscadet, Sancerre, and Vouvray, perhaps rose d’Anjou, as Loire Valley wines, but bottlings from Quarts de Chaume, Saumur Champigny, and Cotes du Forez don’t often make it onto the world’s winelists.

An increase in Loire exports gives me reason to think more wine lovers in search of well-priced, terroir-specific reds and whites will be ferreting out the best examples now coming onto the market.

Melon de bourgogne makes up 37 percent of white wine production in the Loire, followed by chenin blanc (25 percent), and sauvignon blanc (22 percent). Of red wines, cabernet franc makes up 51 percent, gamay 20 percent. Only one-fifth of total production is exported; the U.K. receives 34 percent of that, Belgium 19 percent, and the U.S. 13 percent.

That abundance of melon de bourgogne goes into making about 600,000 hectoliters of Muscadet in the western Valley around Nantes, of which the best, from Sevre et Maine, Coteaux de Grandlieu, and Coteaux de la Loire, are categorized “sur lie” (“on lees”), meaning the white wines are kept in contact with the barrel yeasts and sediment, imparting richer flavor and sometimes a little sparkle.

Drunk With Abandon

Since the 1970s Muscadet has largely been considered a pleasant, highly acidic and moderately priced low-alcohol white wine (around 12 percent), to be drunk upon release and with abandon. Its citrus flavors can often overwhelm its fruit, which makes it a good choice with shellfish. A recent tasting of some of the finer examples available showed me that Muscadet can have considerably more substance.

Four years ago, enologist Eric Chevalier took over his family’s estate, Domaine l’Aujardière, in terroir close to the Atlantic Ocean. His Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu sur Lie 2008 ($14) spent the winter on the lees, and the wine had excellent body along with aromatic and mineral qualities that balanced the acid notes. It went perfectly with an Alsatian cheese tart with bacon and onions at DB Bistro Moderne in New York.

Old Muscadet

Far more amazing was a 1999 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie Le Lion d’Or from Domaine Luneau-Papin ($25). Prior to that first sip, I would never dream of drinking a Muscadet 11 years old, assuming its best days ended about three years ago. Oxidation should have set in five years ago.

Instead it was a revelation. Eighth-generation winemakers Pierre and Monique Luneau-Papin head this 30-hectare estate that has stood in Le Landreau since the early 18th century. They make small cuvees to reflect particular terroirs. Harvesting is by hand, with an immediate light debourbage (separation of juice from gross lees), followed by a four-week fermentation, then six months of aging in stainless steel on the lees.

The process is nothing really out of the ordinary, but the steps taken together somehow produce a Muscadet that not only has grown in body and beauty over 15 years but has taken on complexity I never would have expected. Because of that richness, it was ideal with a steamy choucroute whose own aromas of pork fat, juniper, and the tartness of sauerkraut needed that boldness from a white wine.

Red Loires

I have never been an enthusiastic fan of the red Loire Valley wine chinon, finding most examples simplistic, sometimes a little bitter. But a single vineyard chinon from Philippe Alliet, who with Bernard Baudry, is considered one of the region’s finest vignerons, changed my mind.

Dedicated to producing only small yields, mostly from old vines, Alliet makes a chinon called L’Huisserie 2007 ($34), with a bit more flesh on its bones than I’d been led to expect of the 2007 vintage. The characteristic light tannins of chinon and the ripeness of the older vines’ fruit showed further nuance.

On the other hand, Thierry Germain’s Domaine des Roches Neuves La Marginale 2005 ($40) from Saumur Champigny in the Loire Valley was fairly raw and inky, but with the charming scent and flavor of wild fennel, making it a wine with an affinity for herb-rich grilled foods of the Mediterranean.

The Loire Valley wines now coming into the market from smaller producers show how hard French vignerons are working to improve their image by making better wines and keeping them at a price most people will readily accept.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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