The Loire Valley is going to be a multi-series event. Rather than tackle the whole large thing at once, I’m taking little nibbles, breaking up my studies into four regions and including one associated tastings for each. For a simplified look at the Loire Valley, please see Loire Valley Regional Round-Up and Wine Review and Pop Quiz(es): Loire Valley.
This series will follow the flow of the Loire River, France’s longest river at 629 miles. Today, we begin our travels as we flow upriver from the Atlantic and step off the boat to discover Pays Nantais and its star grape Melon.
Pays Nantais is the Loire region situated closest to the Atlantic Ocean, thus has a cool, maritime climate. Springs remain fairly cool; summers can get quite humid. Though rain can fall at any time of year, it’s noted that it’s most frequent occurrences happen in March/April (which can possibly negatively affect flowering), as well as September (which can potentially disrupt harvest). To mitigate the associated risks that come with rain, growers opt for more open canopies as well as leaf removal to ensure grapes have adequate exposure to the heat o’ the sun as well as reduce the risk of fungal diseases. Spraying to treat fungal infections is also common.
Despite the fact that Pays Nantais is so close to the ocean, the threat of spring frost is real and, my text notes, it “set the whole region back” while I was in Kindergarten. I mean 1991. Frost prevention measures include wind machines, heaters, and burning straw bales. (Stinky.)
Despite that frost threat, it’s also noted that in hot years, grapes tend to reach high sugar levels before skins and seeds are ripe. In those cases, I imagine, growers would want to practice a more shaded canopy configuration.
The main grape game: Melon. AKA Melon de Bourgogne. AKA Muscadet: This is the most planted variety in all of the Loire Valley, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (4th edition). It’s known to resist cold temperatures and “produces quite regularly and generously” (the Oxford). Melon makes a light-bodied wines with high acidity, low to medium alcohol, and that are fairly shy aromatically (read: low in aromatics). Many and are often produced sur lie, but there are specific rules to follow if they are. (See below.) BLENDING FACT: From 2018 basic Muscadet AOC may include up to 10% Chardonnay. Whoa.
The “other” grape to know is Folle Blanche (AKA Gros Plant): a rather acidic but otherwise neutral white wine originally intended for distillation by the Dutch settlers and wine traders back in the day. The Oxford states there are limited plantings here in California “and possibly northern Spain.” That’s cool, because my text stated that the Loire Folle Blanche is only sold locally. (Anybody know who here in California is planting this?)
Because Pays Nantais is typically so cool, chapitilization is pemitted for up to 12% potential alcohol.
According to my text, Muscadet/Melon/Melon de Bourgogne is typically fermented and aged in large shallow underground glass-lined concrete vats (though it also notes that stainless is also used). The winemaking goal, when it comes to Muscadet/Melon/Melon de Bourgogne is to keep the wine as neutral as possible, and then add all the complexity via lees aging. (See below).
EXPERIMENTATION AHEAD!: Supposedly (again, according to my text, but also double-verified via the Oxford), winemakers are also experimenting with skin contact and fermentation in barrel, amphora, or concrete eggs.
Alright, let’s talk sur lie. I think we all know what it means, how it’s conducted, so I won’t go into those basics here. The winemaking practice of aging wine sur lie is super common in Pays Nantais because they’re working with a low aromatic and fairly neutral grape variety that, under “normal” circumstances would make a very light-bodied wine. So this is the region’s way of giving the wine some uumph, some body, some structure, some complexity with added texture, aroma, and flavor.
But these guys are pretty strict about how this all takes place: Following primary fermentation, one racking is allowed to remove gross lees. Then wine then remains in contact with the fine lees through the following year until ready for bottling. LABEL FACT: The term sur lie may be added to any of the four AOCs (below), indicating they were bottled between March 1 and November 30 of the year following harvest and in the winery in which they were made.
WINE BIZ (D2) NOTE: These rules mean that if negociants want to make or sell sur lie Muscadet, they must buy grapes, unfermented must, or the final product—not wine that they then “finish” themselves.
Two larger appellations:
- Muscadet AOC: The only real note I can find on this AOC is that the yields for this guy are a bit larger than either Muscadet de Sevre et Maine AOC, or the two smaller AOCs listed below. (70 hL/ha for Muscadet AOC; 55 hL/ha elsewhere) Of course, larger yields will affect quality and price, so that’s a good note I suppose (especially if you’re going wine shopping…). And, actually the Oxford includes this line: “Muscadet (AOC) is the basic appellation, not made in great quantity and usually less exciting.” As mentioned above, this is the place where winemakers can include up to 10% Chardonnay.
- Muscadet de Sevre et Maine AOC: According to the Oxford, this is the best-known region and the one that is most densely planted with the Muscadet grape (home to 77% of Pays Nantais’ Muscadet vineyards). Vines are predominantly planted on low hills; soils include gneiss, granite, and schist.
Two smaller appellations:
- Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire AOC: This is found just a bit further inland, where vines are planted on steeper slopes with schist or granite soils. The World Atlas of Wine notes that these wines tend to be a bit leaner.
- Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu: Conversely, these grapes grow on sandy, stony soils closer to the Atlantic, thus, as the Atlas notes, are riper and more supple than other Muscadet expressions.
Muscadet cru communaux are village crus with standout quality that have been called out and given their own kind of status. The most notable include Clisson, Gorges, and Le Pallet. “Wines like these defy the ‘drink me now’ image; at five, even ten years, they can be intriguingly complex,” says the Atlas.
Cru communaux have lower max yields and wines have to be kept on the lees longer than for typical sur lie: 18 months for le Pallet or 24 months for Clisson and Gorges. However NOTE: These wines cannot be labelled as sur lie because the extended aging means they are bottled after the date required for sur lie labelling—TRICKY!
LABEL FACT: If the grapes are grown exclusively in one area, the name of the cru communaux can be added to the label.
Wine Case Study: Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet Chateau Thebaud Clos des Morines 2014
About the Wine:
According to the winery, the vineyard is located on slopes off the river Maine in very stony terrain where vines average 25 years old.
The soils are predominantly well-draining granite that also contain a good amount of gravel.
The grapes were hand-harvested and immediately pressed in a pneumatic press. The wine fermented with native yeasts and remained in contact with the lees until the following spring without racking.
Price: $27.99 (wine.com)
Appearance: Medium Lemon
Aroma: Medium (+) intensity of aromas: lemon, lime, green apple, yeast/biscuit/bread, chamomile, baby’s breath, mineral, wet stone, beeswax
Palate: High acid, medium body, medium alcohol with a medium (+) flavor intensity: While I do get all of the above notes on the palate as well, the wine presents with more tropical flavors than I originally suspected—pineapple, grapefruit, pomelo all present.
The finish is medium (+)
Conclusion: The Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet Chateau Thebaud Clos des Morines 2014 is a very good wine. The addition of those bread/biscuit/yeasty notes not only adds complexity, lending to the soft mouthfeel and overall medium body, but it also balances out the wine’s racey acidity and those citrus-dominant tasting notes. The medium (+) intensity on both the nose and the palate speak to both those points—the grape’s innate varietal character as well as the use of lees aging. The finish does fall just short of long at a medium (+)—although I could see some making the argument for a long finish as well. But for me, the overall flavors did subside and so I couldn’t rate the wine as outstanding.
I do think that this wine could age further in bottle. The structure from the lees is firm enough to create a solid backbone; the acidity is certainly high enough; and the intensity of fruit flavors are strong enough to hold on. This is already a 2014 vintage, so it will be interesting to see what it tastes like in even just a few years time.
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