Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine . . .
There was a time when I thought that one of the greatest joys in life was eating Whitstable Royal Native oysters washed down with a glass of Muscadet. I grew up in Whitstable so the oysters weren’t a problem and, back then, nor was Muscadet. It was one of the few French white wines that was everywhere. It didn’t last. My first lecture, as a medical student, on the causes of food poisoning put paid to the oysters and tasting better whites from almost anywhere else showed me that a lot of Muscadet was really pretty ordinary.
I’m still off oysters, to my deep regret, but I’m back on Muscadet. Choose with care and you find yourself drinking a wine with real character, still reasonably priced. And it’s still great with seafood.
Muscadet is the wine. Strictly, the grape is Melon de Bourgogne, a cousin of Chardonnay, but there’s a modern tendency to call the grape Muscadet too. It’s made around Nantes in Brittany where the Loire reaches the Atlantic. It’s a lousy place to make wine with a climate like Cornwall – wet, windy, prone to winter frost – but the soil is good for wine: rather poor quality clay with sand and gravel, on schist and granite, so it drains well. Some Muscadet is still a bit dull so go for one of the three sub appellations that are superior to the rest: Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine; Muscadet – Coteaux de la Loire; or Muscadet – Côte de Grandlieu. The other thing to look for on the label is “sur lie”, meaning “on the lees”. To qualify for this the wine must be left in contact with the sediment (dead yeast cells, bits of grape skin etc) over, at least, the first winter, before bottling. This gives it time to extract more flavour.
What is there to like about it? It’s bone dry, pleasantly acidic, with a fresh flavour described as “salty”, even “maritime”. At its best it can have quite a “tang”. Sometimes it’s better after having been open for a few hours, developing a bit of depth. But don’t get carried away; its character is nearer to English wine than to something from further south in France. It feels a bit thin in the mouth and you’d never call that flavour “full-bodied”.
Why is it back in favour? In the 1990s demand for Muscadet collapsed as cheaper, better, New World whites reached Europe in large numbers. To recapture the market, Muscadet winemakers are now making better wine. They are only using the better vineyards, with lower yields, later harvesting, leaving wine on the lees longer, and even ageing in oak. As a result the wine has recovered its unique northern character.
Where can you get it? At the time of writing neither M&S in Western Road nor Lidl in Arundel Road had any, but Waitrose had two different Muscadets, neither of them bad. But the star is the 2014 Chateau du Cléray Muscadet Sèvre et Maine from Majestic on the Old Shoreham Road which won a silver award in the Decanter World Wine Awards 2015. And now you can buy single bottles from Majestic instead of the previous policy of buying a minimum of six. You just pay a pound or two more per bottle for the privilege.