The mouth of France’s Loire River is a broad, windswept place where land meets the Atlantic horizon. Just a few miles inland, away from the rise and fall of the tide, the landscape undergoes a drastic change, and a secret country of trees, rivers, villages and lots of vines produces great white wines.
Here, just southeast of the city of Nantes, growers are reinventing the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation and proving that the region’s wines are not all simply breezy, warm-weather quaffers.
There’s plenty of light, big-brand Muscadet on the market, often made by large producers and intended to be enjoyed young. But those wines do not portray Muscadet’s destiny.
“The wine styles have changed,” says Jean-Jacques Bonnet of Domaine Bonnet-Huteau. “They are more complex, more mineral and have greater finesse.”
The future for Muscadet Sèvre et Maine lies in the hands of Bonnet and others intent on linking the Melon de Bourgogne grape to the multifaceted terroir from which it comes. Many are children of winemakers and, as common throughout France, have worked around the world and returned home to make great wine.
“The growers have decided to take Muscadet back into their own hands,” says François Robin, communication manager at Fédération des Vins de Nantes, the local wine promotion association.
It’s a new chapter for an old wine region.
Domaine Brégeon Fred Lailler 2014 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Gorges; $40, 92 points. From the Gorges Cru in Muscadet, this wine is now mature, and it shows how well top Muscadet can age, though there’s lots of potential for additional development. It has lost some fruitiness but gained a creamy, nutty quality. At the same time, the acidity and freshness are still there. Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Cellar Selection.
Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin 2016 Terre de Pierre (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $24, 92 points. From a stony parcel called La Butte de la Roche, this wine is concentrated and a strong mineral backbone. Its ripe spiciness and smokiness are balanced with profuse quince and citrus fruits. The wine, rich and textured, is ready to drink. Louis/Dressner Selections. Editors’ Choice.
The land and the grape
The twin rivers of the Sèvre Nantaise and the Maine flow northwest into the Loire and form a V-shaped plateau. Along the way, the rivers cut narrow, wooded valleys of sudden beauty, where steep cliffs tower over the fast-flowing river.
In the village of Clisson, a Tuscan-inspired town in the lush green of the Loire River basin, a massive 13th-century castle towers over the Sèvre Nantaise as it flows over a waterfall. Little landing stages along the river’s shoreline give canoe and kayak enthusiasts access to the rivers.
As you drive along the plateau at nearly 230 feet above sea level, you can see massive churches surrounded by villages and vast swaths of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine vineyards. With almost 15,000 acres planted, it’s one of the most densely planted appellations in France.
Melon de Bourgogne yields an impressive variety of styles throughout the appellation, from light and fruity to rich and mineral.
It’s also a mono-cépage, or single-variety, wine region. Only one grape goes into Muscadet, the white Melon de Bourgogne. It arrived from Burgundy in the 17th century, though some accounts claim it may have come earlier. Its initial purpose was to produce high volumes of wine for brandy distillation.
As it turned out, Melon de Bourgogne found its true home in the Loire Valley.
“It is a real quality grape, which is able to produce so many different expressions,” says Gwénaëlle Croix, one of three partners at Domaine de la Pépière in Clisson.
Melon de Bourgogne is neutral in character, which makes it a true grape of terroir. It takes on the character of the soil from where it was planted, and is heavily influenced by the climatic conditions that surround its vines.
With the huge variety of soils and different base rocks in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, the grape yields an impressive variety of styles throughout the appellation, from light and fruity to rich and mineral. Domaine de la Pépière’s wines range from the light texture of La Pépie through the tropical fruits of Cru Clisson to the concentration and density of Cru Château-Thébaud.
Most Muscadet wines are aged on their lees—the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation—and then bottled directly off those lees (look for the term “Sur Lie” on the bottle). This treatment gives an extra intensity and richness, as well as a light pepper and yeast character.
Gneiss. Mica schist. Gabbro. Granite. Amphibolite. The names of the appellation’s base rocks, what the French call roche mère or mother rock, roll off the tongues of the growers.
For Fred Lailler, who produces wines in Gorges at Domaine Brégeon, it’s gabbro, a black, volcanic rock, that forms the basis of the Gorges Cru wines. His vineyards sit atop a cliff by the Sèvre River. Massive, pitch-black gabbro covers the ground, with tree roots that wind their way through them.
“It’s impenetrable rock, but the roots always seem to find their way through the gaps,” says Lailler. The rocks give his Cru Gorges wines its smoky character, steely structure and tight intensity.
Many producers like Lailler farm biodynamically, organically or a mix of the two. While it’s difficult to do so in a region so affected by the moist ocean air, producers who have committed to such practices are on the rise.
Pierre-Henri Gadais, son of Christophe Gadais, of Gadais Père et Fils, is in the process of converting part of the family vineyards to organic. The result is his Cuvée Pierre-Henri bottling, which is pure in lemon zest and spice tones.
Jérémie Huchet at Domaine de la Chauvinière is converting his Chemin des Prières vineyard to organic, which produces an almost salty wine with intense acidity and citrus fruits. Following up on the success of this bottling, he plans to convert more vineyards to organic viticulture.
Les Frères Couillaud 2016 Château de la Ragotière Sélection Vieilles Vignes Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $16, 92 points. Old vines, up to 60 years old, are the basis of this concentrated, ripe and intense wine. It is impressive and tightly wound, with layers of rich citrus fruit and a chalky texture. This is still a little young, so drink from 2018. Vineyard Brands. Editors’ Choice.
Véronique Günther-Chereau 2010 Château du Coing de Saint-Fiacre L’Ancestrale (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $19, 92 points. This beautiful apricot and melon-flavored wine is still so fruity. It shows no sign of its seven years’ aging, still keeping a fresh crisp character. There is just this extra depth and richness that brings in almond, spice and a touch of toastiness. Drink this very fine wine now. Encore Wine Imports.
Domaine des Tilleuls 2017 Les Vénérables Vieilles Vignes Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $17, 91 points. Vines between 40–70 years old form the basis of this ripe, juicy and deliciously fruity wine. With its refreshing acidity and zesty lemon character, it’s rich and packed with fruitiness. Drink now. Bordeaux Tradition. Editors’ Choice.
Bonnet-Huteau 2016 Les Laures Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $20, 91 points. This is a rich, complex and concentrated style of Muscadet. It also boasts a steely edge that comes from the granite soil of Vallet. Made from biodynamic vines, it shows intense fruit character, with spice and pepper at the end. It is attractive now, though it could also age further. Nomadic Distribution.
Domaine de la Pépière 2017 Clos des Briords Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $20, 90 points. From 60–70 years old, this wine boasts a rich, concentrated backdrop. Its spice and pepper flavors are integrated with the ripe fruitiness, while delicious acidity and a touch of almond grace the finish. Drink now. Louis/Dressner Selections.
Know your cru
From a panoramic viewing platform at the highest point in Sèvre et Maine, it’s easy to see the vast expanse of vines, the Loire River and the city of Nantes in the distance.
But if you drill down to find some focus, there’s something new about the appellation’s wines worth getting to know.
Crus, or specific vineyard sites, are the most recent expression of what the dedicated growers in Sèvre et Maine believe are Melon’s potential for great wines.
There are currently three officially recognized crus of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine: Clisson, Gorges and Le Pallet. There are also seven under consideration—Château-Thébaud, Champtoceaux, Goulaine, La Haye Fouassière, Mouzillon-Tillières, Monnières-Saint-Fiacre and Vallet—that are each in various stages of the approval process.
Think of wines from any of the cru vineyards as first growths of the appellation.
Think of wines from any of these vineyards as first growths of the appellation. As Bonnet says, the crus make “a family of vineyards, and, just like a family, they all have their own personalities.”
Cru-designated wines must come from vines planted on the most typical rock of each village. They have different and often surprisingly long aging periods before they can be released. Clisson and Gorges wines have to be aged a minimum of 24 months on their lees, while Château-Thébaud can be aged up to 48 months.
For Gérard Vinet of Domaines Vinet, the jewel of the winery’s many vineyards is the walled Clos de la Houssaie, whose mineral-driven wines need to age at least six years. Since 1926, this high-quality, 1.7-acre vineyard has been regarded as an unofficial grand cru of the region.
For now, the production of these cru wines is small, as it only accounts for about two percent of all Muscadet Sèvre et Maine bottlings. Expect those numbers and quantities to ramp up, especially as more crus are approved.
“Our American clients can’t get enough,” says Croix.
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is an appellation on the move, with new people, new ideas and a determination to evolve. There are still plenty of inexpensive Muscadets to enjoy, and they’ll always be available at a good price. But dedicated growers now think beyond that restrictive box. They’re on course to turn Muscadet into a great wine.
Lieubeau 2017 Domaine de la Fruitière Gneiss de Bel Abord Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $18, 90 points. The schist and granite soil of this vineyard yields a wine that is strongly mineral. Its acidity and fruitiness are restrained by a tense texture and steely character. This fine wine needs to age a few more months, so drink from early 2019. European Cellars. Editors’ Choice.
Domaine Salmon 2017 Grande Réserve Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $29, 90 points. This rich, intense wine is deliciously juicy and fresh. Its acidity and lemon flavors are balanced by a creamy apple tone that gives a ripe feel. It’s a fine wine, ready to drink now. The Organic Cellar. Editors’ Choice.
Pierre-Luc Bouchaud 2016 Le Perd Son Pain Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $15, 89 points. This warm, ripe wine, with its balance between creamed quince and lemon acidity, is immediately attractive thanks to its fruitiness, touch of minerality and final bright acidity. Drink now. Serge Doré Selections.
Sauvion 2016 Château du Cléray Haute Culture Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $17, 89 points. The original home of the Sauvion family, this estate has produced a ripe and generously styled wine, with fresh fragrant aromas. It has a soft texture and upfront green-apple fruit. Drink this ripe and crisp wine now. Advantage International.
Domaine de la Foliette 2017 L’Origine Sur Lie (Muscadet Sèvre et Maine); $18, 88 points. Soft, ripe and full of great fruitiness, this is an easy, crisp, apple- and citrus-flavored wine. The delicious fruits are sliced with tight acidity and a mineral edge. Drink now. Vigneron Imports.