The Evolution of Muscadet

  • By Jacky Blisson MW
  • 30 Oct 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
Made possible by
Champtoceaux - Credit : Emeline Boileau

Muscadet is the westernmost wine region of the Loire Valley, situated around the city of Nantes on the western central coast of France. Just over a decade ago, a Cru system of superior vineyard areas was introduced, in part driving the region’s terroir-focused movement.

Muscadet’s Cheap & Cheerful Past

In the 2007 edition of his Wine Atlas, Oz Clarke wrote “Muscadet is famous because it is so irreproachably, ultra gluggably anonymous… that is the basis for its success”. Until recently, this quality was also its downfall.

The Melon de Bourgogne grape variety rose to prominence in the Pays Nantais due to its frost resistance and relatively high yields. Muscadet’s popularity as a simple quaffing white wine grew in the region and extended to Paris. Exports expanded, notably to neighbouring Great Britain, peaking in the 1980s.

Three levels of quality were recognized: basic Muscadet AOC, for the most entry-level, innocuous wines, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, known to be a higher quality sub-zone with slightly more nuanced, saline whites, and Muscadet Sèvre et Maine bottlings with the sur lie mention, whereby fermented wine matures on its spent yeast cells.

Two other sub-zones: Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire (AOC in 1936) and Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu (AOC in 1994) existed, but due to their diminutive size next to Sèvre et Maine, achieved little recognition outside the region.

A Region in Crisis

Sales in France, and in major, supermarket-led export markets, began to slump in the 1990s as retail prices rose beyond Muscadet’s perceived worth. The situation was brought to a head in 2008, when severe frosts in the region more than halved production volumes pushing up the bulk prices for remaining stock. This, in a time of global recession, caused major buyers to turn away from the region, pushing a number of Muscadet wineries to bankruptcy.

The Rebirth of Muscadet

While many large players left the region during the downturn, a clutch of quality-focused négociants and growers hung on, gradually transforming the region’s image. The use of chemical treatments, yield levels, and overall vineyard acreage has fallen sharply. Indeed, the region counted over 13,000 hectares of vines in the 1980s, and today produces just 8,430 hectares according to the Loire Valley Wine Bureau.

In 2011, AOP regulations were amended to reflect a new, top tier Cru level for Muscadet. Wines produced in these Cru areas have the right to append their name to the sub-zone in which they are located, which is the Sèvre et Maine for all but one Cru (Champtoceaux). Three vineyard areas were initially selected as Crus. That number has now risen to ten, for a total area spanning 200 hectares of vineyards.

The Cru vineyard sites are subject to stricter growing and production standards, including a maximum yield of 45 hectolitres/hectare (vs. 55hl/ha for the sub-zones). They are also aged on their lees for far longer giving them a creamy, textural appeal. The exact duration varies from 18 to 48 months, depending on the Cru and on the individual producers’ stylistic preferences.

Renewed interest from press, sommeliers, and craft retailers for the riper, more textural, terroir-focused wines coming out of Muscadet’s sub-zones and Crus today is slowly reversing the region’s fortunes.

The Cru Vineyards

Clisson

  • Southern reaches of the Sèvre et Maine.
  • Poor sandy soils on a granite bedrock.
  • Wines of elegance, power, ripe fruited expression, and ageability

Gorges

  • Situated on hilltops surrounding the Sèvre and its tributaries.
  • Deep, decomposed clay and pebbly soils.
  • Flinty aromas, a taut structure, and lengthy finish.

Le Pallet

  • Right bank of the Sèvre river.
  • Shallow, well-drained stony soils .
  • Silky textured wines with bright fruit and delicate stony minerality.

Goulaine

  • Temperate meso-climate with optimal slope side orientation.
  • Fairly shallow, sandy soils.
  • Ripe fruit flavours and ample, rounded structure.

Château Thébaud

  • Hugging the Maine river on moderate to steep slopes.
  • Alternating sandy and stony, shallow soils.
  • Intriguing herbal, spiced aromas, laser-focused palate, and subtle salinity.

Mouzillon-Tillières

  • Among easternmost of Sèvre et Maine Crus
  • Moderately deep soils of decomposed gabbro.
  • Firm wines with zesty citrus, herbal notes, and refreshing bitterness.

Monnières-Saint Fiacre

  • Hilly area on the left bank of the Sèvre.
  • Silty, sandy soils.
  • Generous, creamy textured wines with honeyed, exotic fruit notes.

La Haye Fouassière

  • Westernmost Cru located on steep slopes above the Sèvre.
  • Pebbly, well-drained soils.
  • Flinty, floral wines, with a light texture owing to shorter (18 month) lees ageing.

Vallet

  • Northeastern, inland, late ripening area.
  • Sandy-clay soils.
  • Bright fruit, floral nuances, and a rich, layered texture.

Champtoceaux

  • Situated in the Coteaux de la Loire sub-zone, straddling the Loire river in the hills overlooking the town of Ancenis.
  • Varied soils: metamorphic in nature, of sedimentary origin.
  • Vibrantly fruity with a textural, layered palate profile.

Champtoceaux - Credit : Emeline Boileau