Muscadet Revisited

In my Bristol Wine Blog a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in passing just how much Muscadet had improved recently.  Look back 25 years and the 1997 edition of Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was unflattering in its description of the Appellation: ‘bone-dry, light-bodied wines which, with very few exceptions, are ordinary wines at best and often lack balance’.  The advice was ‘drink young’, although, on that basis, why would you want to drink it at all?

But, as I said, things have changed and a bottle I opened a few days ago confirmed that view in the most delicious way – although I suspect that few wine professionals would be able, with any real confidence, to pick Château Thébaud (Joie de Vin, £18.95) as a Muscadet.  Dry, certainly, but with a richness and depth of flavour that is completely at odds with Sotheby’s comment.  So, why the difference?

Our example dated from 2016 – 6 years old – so not a young wine at all and the label tells me that it had spent almost 4 of those 6 years ‘sur lie’.  This is a process where, after the fermentation is complete, a wine is left in the cask resting in contact with the lees (the now dead yeast cells that caused the fermentation).  These impart a savoury, spicy flavour to the wine and also give it ‘texture’ in your mouth.  ‘Sur lie’ is normally just for a few months, occasionally up to a year, so to extend it to 4 years, as Château Thébaud have, accounts for much of the richness and character of this bottle.

We paired it with some seared tuna that we had marinaded in lime juice, honey and ginger – all quite potent flavours – but the wine matched perfectly showing lovely dried pineapple, honey and saffron and a really long complex finish.

I accept that this isn’t cheap at nearly £19 but compared to a good village Burgundy or white Rhône of the same quality, it starts to look like value for money – for a special occasion, at least.  

Sicilian Value

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and almost any sea voyage east to west will pass close by its shores.  That key strategic position resulted in the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Moors all taking an interest in the island and evidence of their presence is still clearly visible for tourists to see.  The Greeks and Romans also, undoubtedly, had a major influence in developing the local wine industry although, until the last 20 years or so, very little from Sicily was of any great interest to wine lovers as producers focussed on quantity rather than quality.

Happily, all that has now changed and you can easily find fresh, fragrant whites from grape varieties such as Catarratto, Grillo and Carricante and deep, rich reds from, among others, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese – the latter particularly good when grown on the inhospitable, volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.

But, in the heat of this record-breaking English summer, deep, rich reds are not really the sort of wines we choose to drink with our salads and other lighter dishes.  Fortunately, Nerello Mascalese is also a good blending partner, adding weight and some tannin to softer fruitier varieties such as Frappato. 

Corte Ferro produce an attractive, very quaffable example of this mix (Majestic, £9.99).  Only light-medium bodied but with intense black fruit flavours and surprising complexity and length for the price.  As so often at the moment, we are even giving our reds a half hour in the fridge to bring them down to a more refreshing 16 – 18°C (equivalent to a cool room temperature) and the Corte Ferro drank very well as a result.  (It’s probably best to leave very tannic reds on the wine rack just now, as cooling them tends to emphasise the tannins).

If you have yet to discover Sicily’s wines, I recommend you look out for them.  Many are delicious and most are excellent value for money – an increasingly important factor with so many prices rising so quickly.

Moreish Loire Reds

The River Loire is mainly known for the variety of delicious white wines that are made from vineyards sited all along the banks of one of France’s longest rivers.  Starting in the west, there’s the crisp, dry Muscadet from near the Atlantic coast – generally much improved, if you haven’t tried a bottle recently.  Then, upstream, the Chenin Blanc grape takes over in the districts around Vouvray and Saumur making wines that can be sparkling, dry, off-dry or, in the Layon, just to the south, some of the best value and most attractive sweet wines in the whole of France.  Continuing your journey east through Touraine, you then move into Sauvignon Blanc country with, amongst others, the steely, minerally Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

But not all Loire wines are white.  There’s some Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre for reds and (fairly pricy!) rosés and there are also some rosés from Anjou, although the quality there can be quite variable.  But it’s the surprisingly little-known reds from the area around Saumur that I really want to mention: names such as Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon.  All made with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes and all benefitting greatly from the global warming we’ve seen over the last couple of decades helping this underrated variety to reach full ripeness.

It’s difficult to choose just one wine from this group but I’ve picked an absolute bargain – Domaine de la Noblaie’s ‘Le Temps des Cerises’ Chinon (Wine Society, £11.50).  The name translates to ‘cherry time’ – completely appropriate for this fresh, medium-bodied red, full of bright cherry and raspberry flavours and with a long vibrant finish.  Very drinkable, even on its own, but perfect teamed with some grilled lamb chops, so long as you leave the mint sauce in the cupboard – please!  And, on a warm evening, we gave it a half hour in the fridge before opening it which worked fine.

So, whether you choose Chinon or one of the other local Appellations I’ve mentioned above, you’ll find some excellent producers and some delightful, moreish drinking.

Distinctly Spicy

Some very good friends of ours, who share our love of good food and wine, brought us back some authentic paprika from a River Danube cruise recently.  So, of course, we wanted to cook a suitable recipe to enjoy some of this lovely hot, pungent spice at its best.  No problem!  One of our favourite dishes is a variant of a well-known Eastern European recipe: chicken paprikas.  Our version features chicken thighs casseroled with onions, the paprika and chicken stock and finished with sour cream, although I have seen similar recipes that include tomatoes as well.  Either way, it’s a delicious, rich, flavoursome dish, so the wine to accompany it needs to have enough character not to be overpowered.

I’d happily drink white or a light-bodied red with it but, as we were going to enjoy dinner on our terrace on a warm summer evening, my wife really thought a white would work best, so who was I to argue?

Going on the old idea that the food and wine of an area often pair well together, my first thoughts turned to a dry Furmint or a Grűner Veltliner but, as luck would have it, we’d already drunk our stock of those and so I had to look elsewhere.

Angelo Negro’s Roero Arneis from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Great Wine Company, £16) was a more than adequate substitute.  A delightful, rich, creamy, unoaked white with interesting complex savoury flavours and enough body to match the dish.  The Arneis variety is little-known outside the immediate area of Roero and was even at risk of disappearing completely in the 1970s but, happily, it has now been rescued and plantings are on the rise again.  I’ve also read of some in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand so, hopefully, this wider interest will ensure the survival of an attractive variety and one that is happy pairing with such a distinctive spice.