Blue sky drinking: muscadet

Categories: Expert guidance

Jane Parkinson explores the natural affinity between this delicate wine and lighter fare

There are some wines that miss people’s radars through no fault of their own. The typically shy, unassuming and delicate wines that hail from cooler climates are often a complete contrast to the shouty, fruit-burst wines that are easy to come by in climates where the sun beats down hard.

Judging this type of genteel, sometimes ethereal, wine blind in a competition can be challenging, as the palate and brain try to identify the difference between delicate complexity and watery blandness. An inexperienced judge could easily miss one for the other, sadly at the wine’s award-winning expense.

Fortunately, in the last couple of decades, wine professionals have become much more sensitive to these softly spoken wines and in turn, so too has the public. Perhaps it goes without saying (but I will anyway) that these lighter-bodied wines reign supreme with lighter food, because wine and food matching is just as much about weight of flavour as it is about the flavour itself. Fresh green vegetables and delicately cooked fish, therefore, usually require wines that have a lightness of touch, allowing them to seamlessly carry the flavour of the food without being over- or under-whelmed.

A constant battle
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is a perfect case in point. Located in France’s north-western winemaking hub, the Loire Valley, this appellation makes wine using the melon de bourgogne grape, which arrived in the Loire back in the early 1700s after a particularly nasty bout of frost in its native Burgundy.

Melon de bourgogne has flourished in its adopted home ever since—but it’s not all plain sailing. The skill of making delicious muscadet is twofold. First, vineyard site selection is everything. With the inevitable rain, thanks to its proximity to the Atlantic, producers fare much better if they own vineyards with well-drained, chalky limestone and gravel soils—any site too clay-based is a gamble for this grape. Second, it necessitates careful vineyard and winery management. If the climate is too warm, melon de bourgogne’s trademark delicacy is killed off; if it’s too cold the grapes won’t ripen fully, so producers are in a constant battle with the elements to get the balance just right.

One of the most common techniques to give muscadet an extra little boost in texture and flavour is to let the wine rest on its lees (the dead yeast cells produced during fermentation). Sur lie, as this contact process is known, gives a richer, creamier mouthfeel to muscadet without letting it lose its attractive lemon, pear and apple flavours—all of which give it the perfect personality to match well with crunchy green vegetables. So yes, muscadet might have slipped off (or never been on) the radar because of its subtlety, but when served with new season peas, or asparagus, or anything doused in parsley, or with the juicy, fresh, herbaceous crunch of cucumber, its raison d’être is clear.

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, Château de la Brétesche, Loire, France, 2017
Wright Brothers

Made from organically-grown vines that are on average 45 years old—and therefore imparting extra complexity into the wine—this has deliciously breezy grassy citrus fruit on the mid-palate, while the extra brioche-like weight comes from its time spent resting on the lees during the winter months.