There are powerful wines and hedonistic wines. There are oaky wines and wines bursting with fruit. There are thrilling wines and profound wines. There are wines with beautifully-designed labels and wines with cute, easy-to-read labels. There are expensive wines and wines you keep in your cellar for decades.
Muscadet is absolutely none of these. Muscadet is low-key, low-alcohol, understated, sometimes tart, and always full of minerality. Muscadet is made from a grape called Melon de Borgogne. Mark Oldman, in his book Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine refers to muscadet’s “geology-class aroma of wet stones” and its “cleansing refreshment.”
In short, I cannot think of a wine that is less American than muscadet. And yet, no wine pairs better with the very American tradition of eating raw oysters. For years, it’s been the French bistro staple to pair with steely Belon oysters. In fact, there is nothing in the world that pairs better with raw shellfish than this white.
I love muscadet at this time of year, because I love to eat oysters on sunny April afternoons (by the way, the last month with an “r” until September for those of you who still follow the old rule). It’s no surprise that the wine list at one of my favorite happy hours, the $1 oysters at Oyster House, always offers at least one muscadet by the glass.
Muscadet comes from the westernmost end of the Loire Valley, near the city of Nantes. It’s a strange designation, because “muscadet” doesn’t refer to geography or the grape, but rather a characteristic of the wine “vin qui a un gout musqué” — literally a “wine with a musk-like taste.”
I’m not sure “musk” is the right way to describe it. But then, muscadet is more of a feeling or a sensation than individual, easily-identifiable aromas and flavors. Muscadet will usually have crisp minerality and a touch of sea salt. And it will often have a bit of spritz and a creaminess that comes from the fact that it’s made sur lie — meaning it’s aged on the lees, ie. dead yeast cells. Yes, Muscadet is very a strange wine. Which is why I love it.
The finest ones come from an appellation called Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine. Picture that in a scripty gold font on a stodgy label – with illustrations of chateau and lots of other French words – and you can see why these wines might scare off some people.
But don’t let it scare you. Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine is one of the best bargains in the wine shop. You can always find a bottle under $15, and often under $12. Here are some to be found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Sauvion Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine 2011. Loire Valley, France. $11.99 (currently on sale for $9.99 at in Pennsylvania stores)
Fresh, like sea-salt on watermelon, and with a talcum-like minerality.
Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie 2011. Loire Valley, France. $12.99
Holy acidity! Holy saline! This is how you befriend an oyster.
Château de la Ragotière Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine 2011. Loire Valley, France. $14.99 (on sale for $11.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill).
Fuller bodied and more complex than most muscadet. Texture like fresh spring rain, with a dry finish.
Domaine de la Landelle Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie 2011. Loire Valley, France. $15.49 (on sale for $11.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill).
Imagine eating a kiwi fruit as you walk along a beach, sea spray in your face, with a dry finish that makes you want to eat more.
Château Les Fromenteaux Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Clos du Poyet Vielles Vignes 2011. Loire Valley, France. $17.99
Crackling, lively acidity. Chalky and salty, but fresh and with a touch of underripe orchard fruit on the finish.