Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- As my boots crunch through snow, Pierre-Marie Luneau hands me a chunk of serpentinite rock in his vineyard on La Butte de la Roche. Like all the best Muscadet producers, Luneau is obsessed with how soil affects a wine’s quality.
Muscadet is typecast as a gulpable, fresh, crisp white wine ideally paired with oysters. And in this huge region in the west of France’s Loire Valley there’s always been plenty of plonk.
On a recent tasting trek, though, I discovered just how serious this bargain white is becoming. The Luneaus are among several dozen vignerons busy reinventing it.
Their Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin, like most of the top estates, is in the smaller Muscadet Sevre et Maine area. It has more than 30 separate plots with five types of terroir in four villages.
“Our eight Muscadets,” Luneau says, “express the mineral personalities of these different spots.”
From La Butte de la Roche, a hill whose rocks were pushed up millennia ago by underground earthquakes, I can see the ice on the frozen marsh dotted with small islands sparkling in the sun.
Later, warmed after our vineyard tour by heaters in the domaine’s spacious tasting room, we sample his range of Muscadets over lunch. Luneau describes the terroir of each, adding that 2009 and 2010 are exceptional vintages.
Thick slabs of foie gras, made by his mother Monique, accompany the 2009 Terre de Pierre ($23) from the La Butte de la Roche vineyard. The wine is long and layered, with pineapple and mineral flavors that seem to shimmer on the palate.
By contrast, the ripe, round 2009 Le ‘L’ d’Or ($20), whose vines grow on granite, shows more power and richness.
The 2007 Excelsior ($28), from 75-year-old vines on mica schist, is dense and round, full of finesse and with a briny edge, reminding me how close we are to the Atlantic. All are kept on the lees (sur lie) until bottling, which gives them a richer texture and deepens flavors.
Even so, they’re still made from the modest melon de Bourgogne grape, which is why you’d think a 10- or 20-year-old Muscadet would be dead in the bottle.
To my surprise, the 1999 Le ‘L’ d’Or ($28) has gained weight and softness, developing aromas of honey and a complex tangy ginger-and-lemon taste. The 1989 has freshness as well as concentration and depth.
Several U.S. sommeliers tell me aged Muscadet is the next big thing, so I’m happy the domaine regularly releases older vintages.
Over the past 15 years, small groups of vignerons have been working to define Muscadet’s top vineyard sites, based on rocks and soil, an attempt to take the region’s wines beyond what people think they’re capable of and build Muscadet’s reputation.
Last year, Clisson, Gorges, and Le Pallet became the first officially recognized crus communaux. (Think of them as Muscadet’s grands crus.)
Well-fed, I head to nearby Domaine de la Pepiere. Owner Marc Ollivier, whose wines have a cult following and who has been one of the cru movement’s leaders, says, “The classification is a good thing. In two years, we’ll have four more.”
With his round, bright, blue eyes, frizzy halo of grey-white curls and matching beard, his cheeks red from the cold, Ollivier looks like he belongs in Santa’s workshop.
Of course, we traipse off to several vineyards before the sun sets to examine rocks.
His vines in the granite-based Clisson cru, which are at least 50 years old, are thick, gnarled, and farmed organically. As we walk, he outlines the production rules for a cru wine -- lower yields in the vineyard, letting the grapes get riper, leaving the wine on the lees longer to gain more richness, and a tasting by an independent committee before bottling to verify quality.
“It’s necessary for them to have complexity and character, not just flowers and fruit,” he says.
In his rustic stone cellar, mercifully warmed by a wood fire, Ollivier lines up bottles on the wooden bar to show differences among his crus.
His powerful 2009 Granite de Clisson ($25) is rich and complex -- good with cheese, he says -- while the not-yet-released 2010, with a lemon-lime, savory character, is better for fish. The 2009 Chateau Thebaud, which Ollivier expects to be approved as a cru in two years, has more brightness and minerality, and spends even longer on the lees.
A light, yet intense, anise-flavored 1993 Clos des Briords is from a single vineyard plot of old vines on schist soils. At 19 years of age, it’s fabulous. (The 2010 is a mere $15).
In the last few years, Muscadet has been in crisis, with at least 60 vignerons going bankrupt in 2010 alone. While most wines sell for way less than $10 in France, that doesn’t cover the costs of fine wine production, which is why the new crus represent hope.
Mustachioed Jo Landron, whose Domaines Landron have also focused for years on finding the best terroirs, says, “Quality is the way forward. I’d like to see more requirements, like hand harvesting. The crus are the new conscience in the vineyards.”
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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