Not long ago, Muscadet was an example of France’s humble side. It wasn’t a big or important wine, just a simple pleasure with a long history—or, in the words of one wine guide: “A dry, lean, fresh stainless-steel-fermented white meant for drinking (not thinking).”
And that, as we often say, is why you should feel free to ignore what the wine books tell you. In fact, Muscadet today is one of the most exciting white wines in France, in part because the region that produces it—around the city of Nantes in the far western Loire Valley—is undergoing a renaissance: much better farming, exceptional winemaking and diligent research to precisely delineate the region’s geology. The best way to consider the wines today is like a more bracing version of Burgundy—Chablis with more zest and a lower price tag.
Some of the credit for that renaissance goes to Nantes itself, which has been transformed from a sleepy little port town near the Atlantic into one of France’s most quietly dynamic cities: a tech hub with free bike sharing and a burgeoning local culinary culture, full of young chefs who make use of the extraordinary seafood of the Breton coast—oysters and langoustines, mussels and succulent shrimp. As for most of the past century, you can still walk into the vaulted bistros of Nantes for a dozen fines and a glass or two.
Indeed, Muscadet is as emblematic of the mild, damp reaches of France’s Atlantic coast as anything else. But it represents much more. Today, the best Muscadet is made from low-yielding vineyards and often bottled according to one of the nine specific crus, or subzones, that have been carved out over the past two decades. It’s now possible to taste bottles of Monnières-Saint Fiacre and Clisson from the same winemaker, and see how the differing soils (gneiss versus granite, in that case) make for very different wines—no different than a Burgundy lover splitting hairs between Puligny and Saint-Aubin.
One difference, though: Muscadet, in its best examples, benefits from some of the most artifice-free winemaking around. There are, yes, occasionally stainless steel tanks in the cellar, plus barrels and on-trend amphorae, but many of the best Muscadets are made in large, glass-lined underground tanks, which let the wine sit as inert as possible. The wines are almost always aged on their lees (spent yeast and other solids), or “sur lie,” which used to be the quality designator on the label. Today, though, it’s perhaps more useful to look for Muscadets labeled with one of the crus (see below) or even a single vineyard, like the well-known Clos des Briords made by Domaine de la Pépière.
And yes they are, indeed, a great gift to seafood of all stripes, not simply because the vineyards sit within a few miles of the Atlantic coast, but also because their mineral side flatters the brine of shellfish. They can be lean and fresh, but in ripe vintages or in versions that have been subject to extra aging, you’ll find breadth and depth that certainly puts richer food in mind. In other words, it’s a white wine that welcomes all comers, which is why it’s worth knowing, now more than ever.
- The grape in all Muscadet is melon de Bourgogne, now officially dubbed “melon B” (pronounced “melon bey” in an unintended nod to Beyoncé). It came from Burgundy in the Middle Ages—it’s a sibling of chardonnay and gamay—and was popularized in the far western Loire in the 18th century.
- Lees aging is the key to giving Muscadet its depth, which is why the appellations can all be appended “sur lie.” That used to be a mark of quality for Muscadet, but today “sur lie” only designates wines bottled the year following the harvest. Many of the best Muscadets are aged far longer (sometimes three years or more) and thus can’t be marked as such.
- The largest appellation in the region is Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, on either sides of the Sèvre and Maine rivers, south of Nantes. Straight “Muscadet” is a much smaller appellation, located around the fringes of Sèvre et Maine. There’s also Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, northeast of Nantes, and Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu, surrounding the Grand-Lieu lake southwest of Nantes. None of these last three are commonly seen.
- The 10 crus communaux really are at the heart of where Muscadet is headed—toward small production and much higher quality. (The Sèvre et Maine appellation covers more than 8,200 hectares, while a cru like Le Pallet encompasses just 13.) After painstaking geological study, ten crus have been designated: Clisson, Gorges, Le Pallet, Monnières-Saint Fiacres, Goulaine, Château-Thébaud, Mouzillon-Tillières, La Haye-Fouassière and Vallet and Champtoceaux, although not all appear on labels just yet.
- As in Burgundy, the trade in Muscadet was once largely controlled by négociants, which sustained a system of dramatically low prices for the wines and led to its reputation for being cheap and thin. The quality surge has been driven by the rise of individual growers, although some of the remaining négociants (like Louis Métaireau) can make quality wines.
- Muscadet continues to be defined by its remarkable affordability. The best basic bottles have gotten a bit more expensive, but you can still find crus for under $20, definitely under $30. And while that light-touch winemaking remains a hallmark, ambitious winemakers are experimenting with neutral oak and even skin-macerated, or “orange,” Muscadet, which has revealed some unexpected traits of melon: Contrary to the belief that it’s an anodyne variety, it can display the same biting, mineral traits you find in the macerated whites of Italy’s Friuli.
The Essential Producers
Pierre Luneau-Papin: This estate in Le Landreau, now run by Pierre-Marie Luneau and his wife, Marie, produces arguably the most ambitious and complex wines in the region, all from organically farmed vines.
Domaine de la Pépière: Pioneered by the avuncular Marc Ollivier and now run with help from his former apprentice, Rémi Branger (from another Muscadet family), Pépière has been a source for organically farmed, single-vineyard and single-cru bottlings since before anyone knew what those were.
Complémen’Terre: Manu Landron, son of Muscadet icon Jo Landron, decided to strike out on his own instead of taking over the family property. Today, he and his partner, Marion Pescheux, organically farm a little over eight hectares and make a range of single-vineyard bottles with minimal sulfur dioxide, plus curiosities like pét-nat from melon and gros plant, the other local grape variety.
Le Fay d’Homme/Vincent Caillé: Vincent Caillé has been making wine for nearly 30 years (and is the fifth generation of a family of growers), but it’s only recently that he’s garnered acclaim, especially for his take on Monnières Saint-Fiacre.
Domaine de Belle Vue/Jérôme Bretaudeau: Jérôme Bretaudeau’s Domaine de Belle Vue encompasses some 12 hectares, many of them planted to grapes other than melon. So, in addition to his Gaïa from 1940s-era melon, there’s also chardonnay, pinot noir and much more—a sign that even in the Nantais, there’s a will to experiment.
See also: Julien Braud; Jéremie Huchet & Jéremie Mourat/Les Bêtes Curieuses: Domaine de L’Ecu; Domaine de Haut-Planty (Alain & Christian Couillaud); Domaine de la Bregeonnette (Stéphane Orieux); Domaine Bonnet-Huteau; Marc Pesnot; Nelly Marzelleau; Domaine Les Hautes Noëlles; Haut Bourg (the rare Côtes de Grandlieu); Louis Métaireau; Domaine Michel Brégeon.
The Essential Wines
Pierre Luneau-Papin “Excelsior”: Arguably the most majestic of Muscadets (and certainly intended to be), Excelsior hails from a south-facing parcel of 80-year-old vines on micaschist in La Chapelle-Heulin. It’s aged on the lees for 24 months and takes years (or decanting) to show its full range of aspects—ripe pear, cracked pepper, an almost oily richness to match the mineral crunch—and will age for 15 years or more.
Domaine de la Pépière “Clos des Briords”: Pépière has made this since 1988 from vines grown on Thébaud granite dating to the 1930s—a true rarity in a region known for bad farming. It’s powerful, lemony and able to age for a decade or more.
Vincent Caillé (Le Fay d’Homme) “Monnières-Saint Fiacre”: Caillé’s bottling of this cru is intense, even more than Pépière’s three-year-aged version. Deeply stony in its flavors, with incredible concentration, the wine starts opening after four or five years of aging.
Jérémie Huchet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie “Les Montys Vigne de 1914”: Huchet has a true treasure in this parcel in the Goulaine cru, with vines more than a century old. The resulting wine is a freaking powerhouse—deeply flinty with a eucalyptus pungency and density of flavor you can almost feel.
Le Haut-Planty “Gwin’Evan”: This is the best of the vin de France naturalist wines from the region. The wine, which was formerly known as Muskadig Breizh (Muscadet Breton), until the French authorities complained (because, France), it’s made with extended lees contact and no added sulfur. The leesiness is dominant, but in a charmingly plush, tangy way.
Domaine de L’Ecu Sèvre-et-Maine “Orthogneiss”: A longtime biodynamically farmed benchmark for Muscadet from Guy Bossard, and now run by Fred Niger, this hearkens to the days when conversation in the region was more about soil types than specific crus. Stony, creamy and, like the Pépière Briords, capable of long aging.
The Essential Fringe
Jo Landron (Domaine de la Louvetrie) “Le Melonix”: A largely unsulfured take on Muscadet from one of the region’s icons.
Luneau-Papin “Luneau L’Brut”: All of the texture of Champagne by way of melon B.
Complémen’Terre “La Bouteille Rouge”: Carbonic gamay from the Atlantic lowlands.
The orange Muscadets from Jérémie Huchet and Vincent Caillé: Works in progress that show how gripping and rugged a grape melon B can be.
Vincent Caillé “En T’Attendant”: Muscadet Nouveau, basically.
Marc Pesnot (Domaine de la Sénéchalière) “Nuitage”: A mini orange wine left to soak on its skins for 18 hours.