Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Muscadet


[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

The first time I tasted Muscadet was an accident. It was years ago at a seafood restaurant in Boston. I was too full for dessert so I opted for what I thought was a rich, sweet dessert wine. Instead, what I found in my glass was light, acidic, and almost effervescent. Apparently Muscat and Muscadet are not the same thing. Muscat, Muscadet, Muscadelle, Muscadine—the number of similarly named wines and grapes can often be confusing.

Muscadet, which is made exclusively from Melon de Bourgogne grapes, usually hails from the western side of the Loire region in France. Grapes grown from this cool climate region offer deliciously fresh-tasting acidity, and the close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean can give it a hint of distinct brininess.

Why The Weather Matters

Why are cooler climates often linked with higher acidity grapes? The answer lies in the ripening process. Grapes are like little balloons filled with acid and sugar. Right before the grapes start to ripen, they have their highest levels of acid (that would be malic acid in this case) and their lowest levels of sugar. As the grapes ripen with the warmth of the sun, the acid level reduces and the sugar levels rise. So our acid balloon becomes more of a sugar-acid balloon, and the balance of the two depends on how long the grapes are left to ripen.

As you can imagine, with cooler climates come less sun per day and a shorter ripening season, leaving our Loire, France balloons with more acid and less sugar than would be the case in, say, sunny Napa, California.

Understanding the Label

Aside from the normal grape, year, region, and producer information you'd find on any bottle of wine, there are a couple more things you might see on a bottle of Muscadet:

  • Sur lie, which translates to "on the lees" is an indication that the wine was allowed to rest of the sediment of dead yeast cells leftover from the fermentation process throughout the winter before bottling in the spring. This can impart a yeasty, bready aroma to the wine. Sometimes carbon dioxide (which forms a weak acid when dissolved) will also be preserved during bottling and presents itself as a slight effervescence. When sur lie is indicated on the label you can expect a wine that gives more flavor and a fuller body than other bottles.
  • Sevre et Maine is an indication of where the wine comes from—the sub-appellation between the Sevre and Maine rivers in the Loire Valley. This is the most well-known region, though you might also find Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire (to the northeast) or Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu (to the southwest).

What to Eat with Muscadet

The bright acidity and low alcohol content of Muscadet—usually between 11% and 12% ABV*—makes it a great partner for many types of seafood. The last time I had oysters I ordered a glass of Muscadet (on purpose, this time) and as delicious as they are on their own, the Muscadet was a light, almost lip-puckering complement to the salty oysters.

*Remember our little grape balloon of acid and sugar? The sugar is what eventually gets turned into alcohol through fermentation. So with the cooler climate of the Loire comes lower levels of sugar, and as a result, lower potential alcohol.

Oysters and muscadet are classic pairing in part because of the minerality of these wines. "Minerality" in winespeak doesn't really mean that you're ingesting actual minerals from the soil, but more that it has a taste like a stone or a rock (having licked many a stone as a child, I can state this as a fact). And mineral-tasting wines are excellent with the briny minerality of shellfish.

What's also great about this refreshing white is the price, as most bottles are a steal at around $10 to $20 dollars retail. (Of course, restaurants mark them up a little, but they're still often a good choice.)

When selecting a bottle, look for one from 2009 or 2010—with a few exceptions, Muscadet should be drunk within three years of production. And to enjoy this wine at its freshest and liveliest at home, make sure to chill the bottles to about 50°F before serving.

What We're Tasting

This week, we've got a lineup of five bottles all from the western part of the Loire Valley in France. Three of our bottles are from the Sevre et Maine region (the Pierre de la Grange, Domaine de L'Aurière and André-Michel Bregeon) and have been produced sur lie, which may be an interesting contrast to the Joseph Landron Amphibolite Nature, which was not.

Despite similar locations, the range of soil types in which the grapes were grown should offer some differing flavors in each bottle. For instance the vineyards for André-Michel Brégeon's Muscadet are planted above ancient black volcanic rock, which may yield a unique mineral, almost smokiness to the wine, while the Marc Pesnot 'La Boheme' grapes grown in schist soil, which could offer more delicate fruit flavors. We're just a corkscrew away from figuring out how these bottles will shake out!

And each of the five bottles are all relatively affordable, with our most expensive at a $17 price point. Here's a snapshot of the wines we'll be exploring this week:

  1. Marc Pesnot 'La Boheme' 2010 ($12)
  2. Joseph Landron Amphibolite Nature 2010 ($17)
  3. Pierre de la Grange 2010 ($15)
  4. Domaine de L'Aurière 2009 ($7)
  5. André-Michel Bregeon 2009 ($14)

So grab a couple bottles of Muscadet, taste along with us, and we'll compare notes next week!