July 10, 2013

Appel on Wine: Great Muscadet, from mineral-rich Loire Valley, worth a search

By JOE APPEL

Muscadet is a dry, mineral-housed, unoaked white wine from one of the best-known regions in France. It is recognized mostly for being complementary with oysters and simple fish preparations, and it is produced in relatively large quantities. At this point there shouldn't be that much about it to contemplate.

But there is. Just as you're throwing back a glass and gazing at the ocean, the wine smacks you upside and forces deeper investigation. If it's the right Muscadet. There's quite a bit of wrong: haphazardly planted, machine-harvested (often when underripe), and carelessly fermented Muscadet is rampant in France, and prevalent here as well in the "inoffensive" section of seafood restaurant wine lists.

Muscadet is not Moscato. Although this wine from the Western end of the Loire Valley got its name for a supposed musky taste, no one ever really discerns it. The sole grape used to make Muscadet is Melon de Bourgogne, which doesn't taste melon-y. (So French.)

The best subappellation of Muscadet is "Sevre et Maine". The terrain is sweeping, with low-lying hills, five or 10 miles from the Atlantic. There is more mineral differentiation in Muscadet, a region formed by dramatic volcanic activity moving south from Great Britain eons ago that left myriad distinct soils, than anywhere else in France, including Burgundy.

So keep your antennae up. Great Muscadet is available, and great Muscadet approaches the realm of great wine. Great Muscadet is the strangest normal white wine I know, expressing tremendously complex flavors and aromas, many of which stay outside the sphere of linguistically renderable. And great Muscadet costs less than $20 a bottle.

I don't know anyone better with whom to discuss such matters than Paul Chartrand, the pioneering wine importer based in Rockland. Chartrand developed a portfolio of French wines made exclusively from certified-organically grown grapes, back when that was a somewhat ridiculous prospect (1985). His offerings have since expanded to wines from other countries, but France is still what he knows and does best.

His exceptional palate makes him a fascinating man to taste with, and he has always placed emphasis on organic growing as an essential component of overall wine quality -- restraint in use of chemicals transferring directly to fineness of wine and sustainability of winegrowing and winemaking.

This is what brings us to the Muscadets of Guy Bossard and Domaine de l'Ecu. Bossard was the second producer Chartrand chose to represent, back in the 1980s. He has become one of the more revered winemakers in the Loire if not all of France, for the intricate beauty of his wines and his uncompromising commitment to the biodynamic principles that frame farming holistically. (The domaine's website presents an uncommonly succinct and informative overview of biodynamics.)

"Guy was really the first of a new generation to claim Muscadet as a great white wine," Chartrand told me. "It's a high-acid, cold-climate place. Melon is a delicate grape with a lot of green notes, so if it's not nurtured to full ripeness, it falls short."

Bossard, 62, and the younger winemaking partner, Fred Niger Van Herck, has chosen to sustain the fifth-generation winery when he can no longer spend every day in the vineyards as he still currently does. The two are fanatics about full ripeness. In Muscadet where autumn usually brings copious rains that threaten mildew and rot, getting grapes to full ripeness is a high-risk endeavor.

Indeed, Niger and Bossard seem to be brave fanatics (of the best sort) about close to everything. Bossard has resisted the many entreaties to expand his vineyard area past the current 50 or so acres, because he and Niger want to be able to be nurture every vine and participate actively in the harvest. Grapes are hand-sorted and fed into the crusher gingerly. Whereas most Muscadet producers add cultured yeasts to impart fruity flavors that will offset the high acidity, Bossard and Niger only use native yeasts and still get great, true fruit flavors! And a grape as delicate as Melon will transmit the effects of sulfur all too transparently, so they add a bare minimum.

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