Muscadet: A Region in Crus Control
BY REBECCA GIBB MW | NOVEMBER 16, 2021
In the Muscadet-producing vineyard of Château Thébaud, steep granite cliffs suddenly fall away to the Maine river far below. It could be a fatal drop, but in the past year, thousands have walked over the edge. Since October 2020, a floating walkway extending 30 meters from the edge has lured those with a head for heights to enjoy the uninterrupted views of the tree-lined river below and the vineyards perched on the opposite clifftop. The platform takes viewers into uncharted territory, and this concept is not unfamiliar to the local wine producers. Having suffered in recent years from several devastating frosts and decades of depressed prices, many have fallen by the wayside in Muscadet, but the most daring are taking a brave step away from the edge.
View of Maine river from the Château Thébaud view platform.
Sitting just 20km from Nantes, Château Thébaud is not only hoping to lure tourists from the affluent city centre, but it is also one of 10 villages seeking to build Muscadet’s credentials as a fine wine producer. They have a tough task at hand. The average price paid for a bottle of Muscadet in France is less than €4 (Source: InterLoire). While that’s an increase of almost one Euro in the past decade, sales in French supermarkets have fallen by 100,000hl at the same time. This partly reflects availability issues caused by four severely reduced harvests in that period (2012, 2016, 2017 and 2019). There are also far fewer vineyards making Muscadet. At its peak, the Muscadet-producing vineyards hit the 13,000-hectare mark. That figure fell to 10,911ha in 2010, and by 2019, there were just 7,497ha of vines in Muscadet. The word on the streets of Château Thébaud is that it will contract further due to an ageing population of vignerons retiring without being replaced; the next generation is looking at the income potential of making Muscadet and saying, ‘no thank you’.
However, there are some young dynamos defying the downward trend. In April 2020, a new association, Jeunes Vignerons Nantais, was established to support wine producers under the age of 40, and it already has 50 members. At first glance, the cost of entry into Muscadet makes the area look appealing to new entrants. The average price for a vineyard is €8,000 per hectare, rising to €12,000 in the Sèvre et Maine appellation with a maximum price of €18,000 paid in 2019. The highest price reflects the price of a vineyard within one of the new crus (Source: SAFER, 2020). While Muscadet might seem like an absolute steal compared to the average price of a hectare in Pauillac (€2.3m), Champagne’s Côte des Blancs (€1.6m) or Côte Rôtie (€1.15m), the low price reflects the earning potential of those parcels.
Location, location, location in Muscadet.
In addition to depressed prices and the increased frequency of severe frosts in the last decade, there’s also another hurdle thwarting newcomers to Muscadet. Despite the availability of cheap vineyard land, finding a cellar to turn the grapes into wine is increasingly difficult. The popularity of nearby Nantes is forcing real estate prices up not only in the city limits but in the commuter belt. Once an industrialized port city, Nantes is now an attractive, cultural hub with more than 100 parks and gardens; it is easy to get around thanks to its tram system and is just two hours to Paris by train. It was named the 2013 European Green Capital as well as France’s best city to work by L’Express newspaper. What’s more, visitors can also take a ride on a 21-meter-long mechanical elephant, should they wish. House prices are up 29% in the past five years (Source: Figaro Immobilier 2020); however, you can still get double the space for your money compared to Paris, so it’s no surprise that many companies and their staff have left the capital and headed toward the Atlantic coast. The major Muscadet-producing villages are just 20 minutes by train from the city centre, encouraging retiring wine producers, who haven’t had it easy since the frost of 1991, to cash in on rising real estate prices by selling their cellars to developers.
Despite the challenges that producers continue to face, including another devastating frost in spring 2021, slashing yields by 60 to 80%, the tenacity of those remaining is admirable. There are green shoots emerging, and it’s down to a cohort of quality-oriented producers that have been championing premium credentials of Muscadet against a weakening tide of negoçiant-bottled plonk. While there’s evidently a sense of frustration that Muscadet continues to be perceived as a B-list option by the wine world, the rise of Muscadet to the A league will be a slow burn.
Jérémie Huchet has teamed up with Jérémie Mourat to produce crus Muscadet under the Bêtes Curieuses label.
Stepping Up - Muscadet Is Shifting Into High Gear
Since tightening up the rules on wines that could use the term sur lie in 1994, there have been moves to create a higher tier of Muscadet. This culminated in a new cru system, which received the official seal of approval in 2011. The first three crus communaux: Clisson, Le Pallet and Gorges are celebrating their tenth anniversary. In June 2019, four additional crus were approved, bringing the number to seven. Since then, another three negotiated the hoops of the INAO, bringing the current total to 10. In effect, they are the premier crus of Muscadet, and as with other cru systems like Chablis, the maximum yields are lower the higher you climb the quality ladder. For example, the crop levels of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wine may reach 55hl/ha whereas the crus must not exceed 45hl/ha. That said, most Muscadet producers – no matter the quality – could only dream of coming close to those levels in recent years. Average yields across the entire appellation – not just crus – were 41hl/ha between 2015 and 2019 due to three heavy frosts and, as mentioned, in 2021 it’s another wipe out.
Pierre-Marie Luneau-Papin, the ninth generation to take over the family domaine in Goulaine.
The key stylistic difference between the crus and the rest of the appellation is that the wines must undergo extensive lees ageing. While those labelled Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie can be taken off their lees and bottled from March 1 following the harvest, the cru wines enjoy a longer-term stay in their underground concrete tanks. For example, at least 18 months for Le Pallet, 20-30 months for Goulaine and a minimum of 24 months for Clisson and Gorges. The most demanding of appellations is Château Thébaud, which necessitates three years on lees. Paradoxically, the crus cannot use the words ‘sur lie’ on the label.
The notion of crus in Muscadet goes beyond lees, however, and explores terroir. The region sits on the Massif Armoricain, an expanse of igneous and metamorphic rock, which covers the north-west corner of France’s mainland, taking in Brittany and western Normandy. It’s for this reason that there’s no limestone here. Instead, you’ll find granite and gabbro (igneous rocks) as well as schist, gneiss, amphibolite and more (metamorphic rocks). In Clisson, the most southerly of the 10 crus, which crosses both the Sèvre and Maine rivers, the dominant subsoil is granite overlaid by sand while Gorges sits on a bedrock of gabbro overlain by clay. The two resulting styles couldn’t be more different. Here’s why…
The free-draining, sandy topsoils of Clisson’s granite warm up much more quickly than the cool, moisture-retaining clays over Gorges’ gabbro, so it’s no surprise that ripening is accelerated in Clisson, providing full bodied, succulent and richly fruited, sometimes tropical expressions of the region’s grape Melon B (note it’s no longer ‘Melon de Bourgogne’ due to some miffed Burgundians). What’s more, alcohol levels tend to be in the region of 13% in Clisson compared with other crus, which typically sit closest to the 12% mark. While attractive, this can lead to a lack of tension and clarity, so picking dates are particularly crucial in this cru; producers will visit their Clisson vineyards every day during harvest so as not to miss their window, whereas timing on cooler sites is less urgent.
Some of the most sensitively made Muscadets crus are produced by Rémi Branger, who took over Domaine de la Pepière in 2014 with his business partner Gwen Croix.
In contrast, Muscadet from neighbouring Gorges is a powerful, no-holds barred style. While Clisson might be the Meursault of Muscadet, Gorges is the Puligny-Montrachet, offering steely, firm expressions. If you love an unwavering line of acidity, an appealing note of bitterness and are looking for a cellar-worthy Muscadet, try Domaine Brégeon or Doamine de la Pépière for starters. They’re both impressive and occasionally confronting, and it’s for that reason, Gorges tends to be best suited to highly involved wine drinkers, whereas those from Clisson are more welcoming and easier to drink. It’s no surprise Clisson is generally the first cru in a producer’s range that makes it to the export market, but I find they’re less exciting, sometimes lacking the tension that defines good Muscadet. However, Clisson wins the prettiest-town-in-Muscadet-award hands down and is a fine place to base yourself when spending a few days there.
Separated from Clisson by a stream that flows along a fault-line, Château Thebaud seems to be a Goldilocks cru. It has it all – when it goes well. It provides mid-palate succulence while retaining elegance and an often-smoky note. Unlike Clisson, it doesn’t verge on flamboyance nor does it attain Gorges’ austerity. Seek out examples from Famille Lieubeau, Vignoble Drouard and Domaine de la Pépière. Likewise, Monnières Saint-Fiacres also finds an elegant middle ground, combining flesh with an appealing hint of bitterness such as Vincent Caillé and Les Bétes Curieues. The most northerly of the crus, Goulaine, is home to the small hill that is the Butte de la Roche, which offers delicious views back to Nantes. In this cru, you’ll find Pierre Luneau-Papin, Domaine de l’Ecu and Clos des Montys, a parcel that Jeremie Huchet’s parents purchased in 2001. The family has been farming in Muscadet since the 17th century, but Huchet’s father was used to the elegant fruit of their granite soils in Château Thébaud. On the stony soils of Goulaine, whose subsoil is composed of both amphibolite and gabbro, the wines were structured and powerful, which Huchet partly attributes to the thicker skins: “My father thought there was something wrong with the wines when we first started making it! It was hard in youth and a little bitter, but we discovered it was just the terroir.”
Marie Chartier-Luneau of Domaine Luneau-Papin stands on top of Butte de la Roche with a view that stretches to Nantes.
The idea of some parcels being better than others is hardly new. The Burgundians have been at it for centuries while Muscadet locals knew the location of their better plots long before the crus took shape. Jean-Jacques Bonnet of Domaine Bonnet-Huteau explains, “In my grandfather’s time, they knew which were the good parcels and the less good parcels, and they were vinified separately, so they had the notion of the better sites, but they certainly didn’t talk about gabbro vs granite terroirs.”
There are certainly clear distinctions between some crus, which have a clear personality like Clisson and Gorges, but the lines can be blurry, particularly when you add vintage conditions, as well as individual producer decisions. The regulations stipulate the minimum period on lees, which has a clear influence on the wine’s character, but there’s no ruling on lees stirring, which is down to the individual winemaker. I personally prefer no bâtonnage in Muscadet, as it tends to make the wines too plump, but it can sometimes be a case of economic necessity. As Vincent Caillé explains, “Normally, I don’t stir the lees because Melon oxidizes easily. If you do the bâtonnage, it adds oxygen to the wine which means you then need to add sulfur and that doesn’t suit me. However, in 2018, I wanted to accelerate the evolution of the wine because we had very little stock from the frosts of 2017 and 2019 vintages, so I did bâtonnage to release the wine earlier.” There’s occasionally malolactic fermentation or a lick of oak in evidence, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Making Muscadet by terroir at Bonnet-Huteau.
Inevitably, there are some failings in the cru system that the most quality conscious (and often most outspoken) criticize. It’s estimated that 90% of the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation is machine harvested, and while many of the best producers hand harvest their crus, machine harvesting is still permitted for these top-of-the-range Muscadets. The wines that are hand harvested, whole bunch pressed, and often undergo a wild fermentation, produce wines with purity, clarity of fruit and finer texture. The organic Muscadet-producing community, which represents approximately 15 to 20% of the region’s producers, inevitably want the cru rules to stipulate organic farming.
The finest Muscadet cru wines have been attracting analogies to aged Chablis, and it’s often easy to see why. Both are grown on the 47th parallel from non-aromatic varieties with racy acidity. They both offer citrus and stony aromas, a comparable flavor profile in maturity and lees ageing provides not dissimilar mid-palate texture. On occasions, there are also comparisons that could be drawn with Chenin Blanc; several examples are reminiscent of Savennières in their round and powerful form.
Whatever the benchmark you choose to draw, take a leap of faith and join Muscadet’s finest producers as they break new ground. This is a vinous adventure that won’t cost the earth.
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