The many charms of Muscadet: The food-loving wine's great with more than just oysters

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If you’re an oyster lover, then you’ve probably been slurping the critters down for a month now (we’re already well into onto our second “r” month, signaling safer shellfish consumption—myth or not) and washing them down with one of the classic wine pairings—Chablis if budget allows and Muscadet for the rest of us.

Talk about a bang for your buck. Muscadet, from France’s Loire Valley, pairs well with all kinds of menu items at a low price point. Photo courtesy JS Evrard/SIPA.

The brilliance of Muscadet with shellfish is undeniable, but the wine has virtues that go beyond bivalves. It’s not just because I’m allergic (and, yes, slightly bitter) that I’m suggesting you should think outside the shell, but rather because this mineral-laden white from the western coast of France’s Loire Valley is about as food-friendly as wine comes. Oh, and did I mention cheap too?

Sometimes Muscadet’s so inexpensive, in fact, that people discount it for fear that scraping the bottom of the wine list is playing with plonk. This lively little number made from the melon de Bourgogne grape (often just called melon, as it was banned in its native Burgundy) offers much more than its $15 average retail price tag suggests—namely an appetite-enhancing opener to a main act, which as our nights turn colder, might involve braised meats, a velvety red and a snuggly blanket.

Back to the name for a minute, though, because this one’s a doozy. Under the AOC (France’s government-regulated appellation classification system), wines must be named by their growing region or varietal (and the latter is usually only done in Alsace), so Muscadet—neither the name for the region nor the grape—is a big exception. The name most likely refers to the musk-like taste that the melon grape has, though I’m not buying it because I cringe at the thought of musky anything, yet love Muscadet. I say the French are just trying to confuse us again.

Muscadet vineyards lie mere miles from where the Loire River meets the Atlantic, so the climate is moist, cool and salty. This translates into a wine with more minerality than fruit and a briny quality not unlike an oyster’s liquor. It’s not the deepest wine you’ll ever have, but that’s never been a deal-breaker for me. Besides, what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in versatility. If I had to assign a fruit flavor, I’d say citrus or maybe green apple, but it is invigorating freshness and delicate floweriness that come through more—both of which expertly partner with everything from pastas to light proteins and cream sauces to browned butter. And, although it’s decidedly tart thanks to those brisk sea breezes, Muscadet doesn’t require food. It’s low in alcohol (not to exceed 12.1 percent by law), so you can drink it on an empty stomach without embarrassing yourself.

Winespeak 101

Racking (v.): The process of transferring wine from its lees into a clean tank or barrel. Racking helps to clarify and stabilize wine and is often repeated several times during a wine’s aging.

Four ways to drink Muscadet (with or without oysters):

Château du Coing L’Ancestrale Muscadet 2004. Tastings of Charlottesville. $21.95

Domaine Guindon Muscadet 2010. Tastings of Charlottesville. $13.95

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet 2009. Wine Guild of Charlottesville. $14.99

Fils de Gras Mouton Muscadet 2009. Tastings of Charlottesville. $14.95

Today, most good Muscadet producers are coaxing more expression out of this relatively neutral grape with sur lie aging. The wine stays in contact with its lees (the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation), thus enriching its flavor and texture. This technique was discovered in the early 20th century when Muscadet producers noticed that their “honeymoon barrels” (the ones they would set aside for weddings and other special occasions) had far more complexity than the wines which were racked (see Winespeak 101) straightaway. Now, sur lie wines go from the fall harvest until at least the following March before being bottled directly off the lees. The result is a fuller, creamier mouthfeel, a touch of prickly carbonation and a greater potential for aging (prime examples can last 10-15 years).

The texture of a wine is so often overlooked yet really worth noting. Just like those slippery, salty creatures that glide down your throat, so much of Muscadet’s delight is in how it feels in your mouth—and that’s nothing short of thrilling.

Winner in white

The 2011 Governor’s Cup winner for white wine was awarded to New Kent Winery for its 2009 Chardonnay Reserve at a kick-off reception for October Virginia Wine Month held in Richmond last week.

Afton’s Blue Mountain Brewery scored a gold medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival for its seasonal ale “Summer-Lovin” and a silver for its “Blue Reserve,” made with 100 percent home-grown hops.

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