Post updated with more recommendations and more about the crus communaux on 11 November 2016
Muscadet has been having a tough time of it for years – it's lost out to wines with more flavour and bigger personality – but this year it's also been savaged by nature in the form of four devastating frosts in the second half of April. The 2016 crop is expected to be down by 20 or more per cent in volume, but the good news is that, despite the frost, mildew hovering menacingly in June and then a summer drought, quality is looking promising. There's more good news: quality was also good in 2015 and especially 2014 – and not all Muscadet has to be drunk super-young. Witness two of the recommendations below.
Muscadet has lost out to showier wines, which makes sense when you think of all the wines packed with fruitier, more varietal, more intense flavours (anyone heard of Sauvignon Blanc?) and the now, thankfully faded, fashion for unrestrained oak flavour. But it makes a lot less sense when you think of the massive popularity, until very recently, of Pinot Grigio in its almost flavour-free, personality-free form. It's not that Pinot Grigio per se occupies the neutral zone: producers simply responded to market demand.
So why not Muscadet? Maybe it tasted too dry to palates accustomed to the ripe fruit flavours of warmer climates. Maybe Muscadet's producers were slow to up their game when winemakers in other regions were improving the quality of their wines. Maybe Muscadet was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps it was a combination of all three and/or other reasons. Whatever, there has certainly been progress, and also innovation, in recent years, in spite of adverse weather, market and economic conditions.
What is Muscadet and what does it offer? It's from an area at the western end of the Loire river in France around the town of Nantes and is made from the Melon de Bourgogne, a relatively inexpressive grape that originated in Burgundy but is now grown almost nowhere outside Muscadet. Muscadet Sur Lie – Muscadet aged on its lees (dead yeast residues) to keep it fresh (sometimes giving it a slight prickle) and to enrich its texture – is a lively, refreshing wine with a savoury, dry flavour and a subtle roundness to the texture. To me it often has a fresh leafy, delicate citrus flavour, a suggestion of Marmite or bread dough and a slight saltiness. It's a winner with all sorts of fish and seafood, from shellfish to oily fish such as mackerel, is generally good with salads and goes down a treat as an aperitif. The fuller – longer aged and/or partially oak-fermented – styles can be served with cream sauces and poultry.
My five recommendations are all from Sèvre et Maine, by far the largest and most important of the three sub-regions and the one in which there are now seven crus communaux (literally 'communal growths' – areas identified as having special qualities), the latest four having just been added. One of my recommendations is from the cru of Le Pallet; another is from the cru of Château-Thébaud.
Château La Bidière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2015
Light and spritely with yeasty, leafy, lightly lemony flavours and a restrained creaminess to the texture. Very good value.
Château du Coing Monnières Saint Fiacre Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2012
£12.95 on offer until 24 December (down from £14.95), Jeroboams
Aged on its lees in tank for 36 months (way beyond the six-month norm), a Muscadet with Burgundian leanings, but still authentically Muscadet. White peach on the nose, green orchard fruit intensity, a supple texture and a salty bite. An immensely satisfying wine.
Le Pallet Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2014
£11.99, or £9.99 in a six-bottle mix, Majestic
From a 10-grower co-operative in the cru of Le Pallet, a partially oak-fermented Muscadet showing its Burgundian grape heritage. Rich but fresh, with beeswax and lemon on the nose, honeyed, tangy, lemon-curd flavours, a buttery texture and salty, zesty finish. Ambitious and wholly successful.
Domaine Salmon Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Vieilles Vignes 2014
£10.20, Joie de Vin, joiedevin.co.uk
Made from the estate's oldest vines and matured on its lees in large oak foudres. Waxy and fresh on the nose, creamy textured with a citrus and salty freshness on the palate.
Domaine Salmon Château-Thébaud Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur 2012
£15.20, Joie de Vin, joiedevin.co.uk
From the new cru communale of Château-Thébaud, this is another Muscadet that shows the advantage of long lees-ageing, combining an effortless preserved-lemon freshness with a nutty richness that will continue to develop.
Photographs by Joanna Simon