Friday, 11 October 2013

Who says wine-making isn't a sport?

While they may not be literally running round the vineyards, vignerons in Muscadet at the far western end of the Loire Valley are currently racing to gather as much of their grape crop as they can, before rot renders it unusable.

Cool, damp weather early in September, followed by hot, humid days created ideal conditions for rot to gallop through the vineyards.  Now winemakers are trying to harvest what they can, gambling on ripe enough, healthy enough grapes to make decent Muscadet in 2013.  Who would be a wine-maker?

Melon de Bourgogne grapes - with some rotten berries

Around the time that I started taking an interest in wine, by which I mean, when I stopped buying it based on the number of millilitres per pound sterling and actually sought out wines that I thought would taste nice, Muscadet was hugely fashionable.  I remember how impossibly sophisticated I felt ordering a bottle of Muscadet to accompany a family meal of moules marinières in a Paris bistro circa 1986.
Pierre-Jean Sauvion of Château du Cléray
Since then, the problems have piled up for Muscadet.  Never an expensive style of wine, it has the misfortune to be competing at the same price point as a huge variety of wines from all corners of the world – a crowded market.  Additionally, from the 1990s onwards, UK consumers tended to prefer full-flavoured and, generally, red wines instead of light, fresh whites.  This trend has reversed in recent years, with UK drinkers turning away from red wine – but both red and white wine consumption have fallen, leaving rosé as the only wine style growing in popularity.
Vine's eye view of a mechanical harvester
Muscadet faces many challenges, with wine consumption in France at an all-time low and its biggest export market, the UK, also following a downward trend.  Despite being one of the most recognizable names in wine, typical French adherence to bureaucratic norms means that, even in its own region, the name is strangely absent.  Driving through the vineyards this September, I saw signs proudly proclaiming that we were driving through the “vignoble du Pays Nantais” or even “Val de Loire” – but of Muscadet, nary a word.  Muscadet is technically the name of the wine, not the region, nor the grape variety, so the signs are perfectly correct.  But such subtleties are lost on all but the most anorakish of wine geeks.  Would it hurt to let tourists know they are in Muscadet country?
This is what your glass of Muscadet starts out as - freshly pressed juice
The grape in question is the Melon de Bourgogne which, as its name suggests, originated in Burgundy and was introduced to the (here we go) Pays Nantais region in the 17th century by monks, who can always be relied on to trail alcoholic drinks in their wake.  Melon was subsequently banned from Burgundy, but became wildly popular in the western Loire.  Despite a decline in plantings, even today Melon de Bourgogne still accounts for over a third of all white grapes grown across the whole Loire valley – more than Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, which dominate white plantings from Anjou eastwards.   It is the fourth most planted variety in all of France, just ahead of Semillon. 

In summary, despite the challenges, a lot of Muscadet is made and much of it ends up here.
Lees in a barrel - there isn't normally a light in there

The heartland of production is the Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, where the vast majority of vines grow.  All Muscadet producers also have the option to label their wines as “sur lie”:  such wines are aged on the fine lees (dead yeast cells) until at least 1st March of the year following harvest.  Melon is a pretty neutral variety, so exposure to the lees imparts additional flavour and texture to the wine, as well as giving it a characteristic “spritz” of carbon dioxide.
Working quickly in the vineyard
Time will tell whether rot or the winemakers have won the grape harvest race this year, but in the meantime, here are some Muscadets from earlier vintages that I’ve enjoyed recently:

Château du Cléray Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur lie 2012 - £9.99, currently £8.99 if you buy two bottles at Majestic
 The Sauvion family bought this estate in 1935, moving from the business of selling pigs to making wine.  Pierre-Jean is the third generation of Sauvions  to take charge of wine-making here. His experience making wine elsewhere in France and the world has helped give him a clear focus on what he is trying to achieve with his own vineyards.   2012 was a tricky year for Muscadet, but Pierre has managed to make a pretty textbook version, combining light body and a subtle range of citrus and apple flavours with sufficient concentration and length to make it a satisfying drink. 

Muscadet is generally treated as a DYA (drink youngest available) wine, but I had the chance to taste the 1997 Château du Cléray, which was full of life, with dry mineral richness and still eminently drinkable.  Also look out for their Carte d’Or bottling at independent merchants and on restaurant wine lists.

Champteloup 2012 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine 2012 - £6.99 from Waitrose
Champteloup shares a common owner with Château du Cléray (Grands Chais de France, most widely known for its JP Chenet brand) and winemaker in Pierre-Jean Sauvion, but the terroir is different and thus the style of wine.  This one is not labelled “sur lie”, though it does spend time on the lees, just not long enough to meet the legal requirements.  Glad that’s all clear as mud.  Back to the wine, it has more defined citrus notes, even a feel of citrus pith about it, as well as a hint of stone fruit.  Perhaps not as authentic a Muscadet as Pierre’s Ch du Cléray, but a refreshing and good value wine nevertheless.

Pierre Luneau-Papin Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine 2012, “Clos des Allées” - £12.49 from Caves de Pyrène, £11.25 from AG wines

This one certainly wins the prize for longest wine name.  Here is another Muscadet which knocks the stereotype of a wine that should be drunk as young as possible.  Low yields from old vines make for a wine that is tight, steely and mineral, with a tangy saltiness.

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