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France’s Most Underrated White Wine Steps Out

A greater number of single-cru bottlings and the arrival of newly designated sub-zones have helped Muscadet elevate its reputation, drawing worthy comparisons to white Burgundy. But what will it take for the region to truly set itself apart? Jon Bonné considers Muscadet's past and future through the eyes of the winemakers looking to reshape it.

French cities, especially secondary French cities, often do best when they’re looking backwards. In the case of Nantes, long a sleepy spot in the western Loire, it would be easy to assume that it peaked many years ago—perhaps during the Industrial Revolution, when its docks were full of grain and spices (and, disturbingly, slaves).

That’s why I was completely unprepared for what I found when I rolled in on a warm fall day: a bustling, growing tech hub, one of Europe’s greenest cities, functional in all the ways that most French cities aren’t. The tram system is fleet. There’s little of the brutalist midcentury architecture that weighs on France like a curse. The mild, often wet climate is maritime Gaul at its best. France’s Seattle, I thought admiringly.

The distinct pride emanating from Nantes these days seems to come from being unburdened by the past. The Nantais love their reclaimed stature as Brittany’s major city, and they beam with locavore Loire pride, too, embracing the proximity to the river’s bounty. Little gastropubs and wine bars offer up immaculate produce, plump Brittany oysters and, of course, local wine, which in Nantes essentially means Muscadet, grown throughout the surrounding countryside.

Last November, I headed south from the city and pulled off the expressway into the town of La Haye-Fouassière, one of the major Muscadet towns. Usually, French roundabouts are decorated with flowers or a basket press, but here, just down the street from the Mondelez factory, with its scent of fresh-baked Lu biscuits, sits a full-scale model of a flying saucer, complete with cosmonauts. Why a UFO? I asked a local winemaker.

“We’re looking toward the future.”

While Nantes so clearly reflects this notion, that wasn’t my initial impression of Muscadet. On a first glance, it seems to be a place of stasis: old vineyards withering, old farmers retiring. The global reputation of its wines—cheap, industrial, old-fashioned—more or less remains their reputation in France, too.

But on closer inspection I discovered a place geared up for radical change. Its best wines have always been a world apart from the meager, thin versions made by many local négociants; bottles like Luneau-Papin’s luxe, smoky Excelsior, aged for two years, or the fleshy, quince-flavored Château-Thébaud from Les Bêtes Curieuses, a project dedicated to single-cru bottlings from winemakers Jérémie Huchet and Jérémie Mourat, have for years been nipping at the heels of white Burgundy.

What’s happening in Muscadet today, though, is more profound, to the point that even the French avant-garde hasn’t really caught on. Many regions aspire to more than what the old French appellations permitted them. But Muscadet, having reached the terminus of its old ways, has decided—like the city that has always nourished it—to decisively step into the future. Rather than pray for the return of the easy money of the past, its best producers bet that they can achieve something greater.

The most basic changes here can be found many other places in France: better farming, lower yields, improved winemaking. But Muscadet has a different burden than other regions. Its wines were rarely exalted, and it never really shaped a distinct identity. As François Midavaine stated in a 1994 book on the topic, “It’s a bit tricky to talk about Muscadet as a wine region.”

More than 20 years later, that Nantais push toward the future is shared by an emerging generation of vignerons—many of them following in the footsteps of their parents—who believe it’s their destiny to completely refashion Muscadet as a significant place making significant wine. They have much in their favor: a loyal devotion to one grape—melon de Bourgogne—and a fantastic diversity of soils hosting the northernmost vines on France’s west coast.

“Muscadet,” says Jo Landron of Domaine de la Louvetrie, one of the region’s most vocal lobbyists for change, “is coming into its place among the great wines.”

This is a bold assertion, but there’s good evidence for it, namely the arrival of crus communaux, nine sub-zones—not all yet official—based on specific soil types and yielding distinct styles of wine. The first three debuted in 2011: Gorges (clay and quartz atop gabbro), Le Pallet (gabbro, gneiss and orthogneiss) and Clisson (coarse soils, with two-mica granite). Four others—Monnières-Saint Fiacre, Château-Thébaud, Goulaine, Mouzillon-Tillières—will appear on labels this year and two more—La Haye-Fouassière, Vallet—will follow later.

These designations, based on extensive soil studies, are Muscadet’s moonshot: the result of nearly two decades of work by determined vignerons like Landron and the Luneau family of Luneau-Papin, all of whom envisioned a greater future for Muscadet. For years, they bottled special long-aged cuvées, like the Excelsior, or labeled wines by soil type (Orthogneiss from Guy Bossard’s Domaine de l’Ecu) or parcel name (Marc Ollivier’s Clos des Briords), seeking to elevate their wines above the sea of insipid bottles that came to represent the region. Finally, their diligence is paying off, not only with these new crus, but with ever more single-parcel bottlings like Luneau-Papin’s monopole, Clos des Allées, meant to reinforce an essential message: Place matters here.

Admittedly, the crus can be confusing at first. The names come from local villages, but boundaries were drawn based on underlying geology rather than a road map. Hence, Clisson, for instance, comprises parts of seven different communes. When you taste the wines, though, you conclude they did quite a good job. I could instantly discern, say, the character of wines from Gorges, with their herbal side and aggressive, almost smoky minerality, from the riper, fruitier wines grown in Clisson. (Some thanks also goes to Muscadet’s unusually transparent, no-frills winemaking: most wines age in large, glass-lined underground tanks with almost no intervention, although concrete eggs—natch—are showing up today, too.)

To some, this might sound like a familiar rags-to-riches tale, namely, a mirror of Beaujolais and its 10 crus, which helped to push that region into a new quality-minded era. And in a way, it is. If Beaujolais was the old populist red, Muscadet was the old populist white. (In fact, melon is a sibling of Beaujolais’ gamay noir; and like gamay, it was repeatedly banished from Burgundy.)

Furthermore, if Beaujolais today is taking the place of red Burgundy as the wines of the Côte d’Or become too expensive, I’d argue that Muscadet is poised to become a new stand-in for Chablis, to which it has long been compared.

Yet there’s one big gap in the Beaujolais comparison: Beaujolais’ fashionability has been growing, quietly, for a long time. While Muscadet may finally be progressing along that path from peasant to princess—first one big appellation, then village-sized sub-regions and finally individual lieux-dits—it is still very early in the process.

Moreover, the Nantais never enjoyed the same happy-go-lucky enthusiasm as Beaujolais. Going back to when the Dutch encouraged plantings of the melon grape around 1639, seeking a thin white wine for distillation, it has been expected to make cheap, forgettable wine. Hence it bears the usual scars of agricultural neglect: high yields in the vineyard and wine sold on the cheap; the usual pesticides and chemical farming; thin and acidic results. Even past efforts to fancy it up have largely fizzled, as with the implementation in 1977 of a sur lie designation, which was meant to reward wines that got more of the lees aging for which the region is known. Quickly enough, sur lie was abused by less scrupulous winemakers, and the region’s most serious practitioners were never convinced that it alone could change Muscadet’s fortunes. They picked at much lower yields, aged their wines for far longer than rules allowed and were seen as outliers who disregarded appellation rules.

In other words, while Muscadet is aware of its potential, it has rarely gotten credit for showing what it can do. That dissonance particularly strikes me as Rémi Branger takes me inside one of the area’s shabby village cuveries, this one in Maisdon-sur-Sèvre, and pours me a taste of the 2013 Monnières-Saint Fiacre from Marc Ollivier’s Domaine de la Pépière, where he works. The wine, from 45-year-old vines grown on decomposed gneiss, previously went into Pépière’s exceptional Gras Moutons. Now, thanks to the new crus, it will be bottled on its own. But sitting in that tank for two years, it has become a spicy wonder, heady with the smell of rye seeds and remarkably powerful—with a chewiness you typically find in epic chardonnay (but achieved here without a lick of oak).

Branger, from an old Muscadet family, began to take over the domaine in 2007 after Ollivier, one of Muscadet’s modern masters, bought some of the Branger family’s property. Today, along with another young vigneronne, Gwénaëlle Croix, they have converted most of Pépière’s 38 hectares to biodynamic farming.

This changing of the guard is essential to Muscadet escaping its own obsolescence. But what stands in the way, aside from decades of neglect in the vineyards, is that most old farms are simply too big to take over: 25 or 30 hectares, far more than a newcomer could manage, even if land prices are absurdly low. “It’s not that they couldn’t have the land,” Branger tells me. Rather, it’s that it’s hard to see a payoff. When young vignerons arrive in the Loire, they more likely gravitate to regions like the Anjou, where they can grow a wider variety of grapes and sell their wines for more money.

Landron’s son Emmanuel, or Manu, learned this lesson when he split from his family to farm his own eight hectares with his partner, Marion Pescheux. When they set up their tiny cellar in the hamlet of Le Pallet, Manu recalls, they were the first new arrival in a quarter-century. And, despite his family’s prominence, he found himself struggling to convince the bank that he could make a living off such a small property specializing in single-parcel wines.

The French bureaucracy, too, seems determined to scuttle Muscadet’s efforts to improve. Case in point: Many of the best bottlings, including Luneau-Papin’s Excelsior Clos des Noëlles and Domaine de la Pépière’s Trois and Quatre (indicating the number of years the wine spends on the lees) can’t receive the region’s sur lie designation because they’ve been aged too long. Meanwhile, in an almost comical twist, the region’s official grape, melon de Bourgogne, can no longer be called that, lest anyone take that other region’s name in vain. The new official name is the silly “melon B.” (When I ask Marie Cartier-Luneau of Luneau-Papin about it, she shrugs. “That’s the magic of France.”)

Despite all the hurdles, the endgame is undeniably near for Old Muscadet. I don’t mean to imply that the cheap stuff is going away. But I keep thinking about something Jo Landron said: “It’s not the same sort of market,” by which he meant that the world today has too many insubstantial wines that fulfill Muscadet’s previous role. Today, we can drink New Zealand sauvignon blanc or California pinot grigio. Muscadet has no choice but to find a different way to exist.

The region’s new generation seems keenly aware of this, and not just in their embrace of the crus. In the region today, you can find all the trappings of the French new wave: naturalists like Marc Pesnot, or Alain Couillaud of Domaine du Haut-Planty, who makes an unsulfured Muskadig Breizh (i.e. “Breton Muscadet”—an affirmation of regional pride, as he explains to me over oysters). There’s not just pét-nat, but also Champagne-style brut made from melon, as well as Muscadet Primeur, a white counterbalance to Beaujolais Nouveau. And just a bit northeast, in the Coteaux d’Ancenis region, Muscadet has its own little experimental sandbox. Traditionally, it was planted with a grab bag: gamay, malvasia, chenin blanc. Now it’s home to the Nantais fringe movement.

There is even skin-fermented Muscadet, including one made by Vincent Caillé as part of an aptly named project called Vine Revival. When I visited his cellar on a brisk morning several months back, he pulled some from an amphora and dribbled it into my glass. This was a side of Muscadet I never thought I’d encounter. The wine was deep orange-colored, dense, tactile; the mineral punch still evident but matched by an intense, tannic bite. As I tasted it, I realized that we have all, in fact, been misled about the melon grape. It is in no way neutral and meager; rather, it’s thick-skinned and sturdy and full of character—so long as you do the work to extract it.

And so, after a week in the region, I’m inclined to believe Jérémie Huchet of Les Bêtes Curieuses, who told me, as we stood amidst a parcel of 1914 vines, “For a young guy who wants to make wines of minerality, Muscadet has the greatest potential.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments in many corners of France. But the obsession with moving forward is unusually keen here, and the future feels a lot more real than that flying saucer might imply. Muscadet, at last, seems ready to become a more meaningful place than anyone ever imagined.

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