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.  

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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.

Sancerre Style, not Sancerre prices

ReuillySancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the twin towns of the eastern Loire, turn out some lovely wines. But, because they are famous names and always in demand, the best tend to be expensive (you can easily pay £15 – £20 or even more). And, if you go for some of the cheaper examples found in supermarkets instead, they can be quite disappointing. So, how do you get the lovely, racy, pungent flavours of a good Loire Sauvignon Blanc without paying these sorts of prices?

Look at a map of the area and, just to the west of Sancerre, you’ll see Menetou-Salon; a little further west and you come to Quincy and Reuilly. All three of these villages also produce Sauvignon Blanc in much the same style as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, yet, as they are not nearly as widely known, prices – comparing wines of similar quality, of course – are far more reasonable.

Take Denis Jamain’s Les Pierres Plates Reuilly, for example. We opened a bottle recently and it went beautifully with some grilled sardines. It was absolutely textbook Loire Sauvignon with wonderful clean, fresh, gooseberry and green pepper flavours. Only a real expert could confidently say this wasn’t a high quality Sancerre. But, when you check the price, you’ll notice the difference: £11.50 from The Wine Society. And, in case you want to try value alternatives from the other two villages I mentioned, Wine Society also have Domaine Pellé’s Menetou-Salon (£11.95) and Majestic are offering Jean-Charles Borgnat’s Quincy (£11.49). Both recommended.

If you’re searching for reliable Loire Sauvignon even cheaper still, you may need to choose carefully, but I’d suggest you look even further west, over the border into Touraine, the region surrounding the town of Tours. At their best, wines labelled Sauvignon de Touraine can give you much of the same style and freshness as a modest Sancerre, but, production here is quite large and quality can be a bit variable, which is why I say you need to be selective. Above all, avoid Loire Sauvignon at bargain basement prices (which, these days, means below about £6) as cheap examples are often dominated by tart acidity with very little fruit – very unpleasant!

And finding bargains by seeking alternatives to famous names doesn’t stop on the Loire. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly Fuissé and many others have their value alternatives. But that’s a Bristol Wine Blog for another day. In the meantime, just look around.