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Heavy Metal Fans Drink Muscadet and You Should Too

It’s lean, minerally, and one of the most exciting white wines in France

Wink Lorch By August 12, 2022
main Muscadet bar at Hellfest 2022 in Clisson
The main Muscadet bar at Hellfest 2022 in Clisson. Photo courtesy of Vins de Nantes.

What music might work with a light, lemony crisp, saline Muscadet from the far west of France’s Loire Valley region? A rippling Bach prelude? A tuneful folk ballad? Or how about a lively disco beat to set off that zingy note on the tip of the tongue? Next time, try a harder sound from Guns N’ Roses, Scorpions, or Ministry.

Since 2006, the heavy metal rock beats from bands such as these have echoed through the vineyards around the attractive, small town of Clisson, 17 miles east of Nantes. A huge site on the edge of the town is home to Hellfest, Europe’s biggest and most extreme heavy metal rock festival. 

Headlined in 2022 by Metallica, there was much beer swilling among this year’s 420,000 festival-goers, yet over 30,000 bottles of Muscadet were sold through the three on-site wine bars looked after by winegrowers from Clisson. It’s compensation for the road disruption and gets the Muscadet name out there.

Clisson was one of the first three crus communaux, or village crus, in Muscadet, an appellation established in 2011 to provide a higher tier for the Muscadet region, with stricter production conditions; there are now ten crus. 

But wines from Muscadet crus only represent 5% of the region’s production. François Robin of Vin de Nantes, the regional organization, hopes this figure will increase so that eventually these crus might be as important as those from Beaujolais, like Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent.

Muscadet is increasing in quality

Muscadet is known for lightweight, straightforward, stony, refreshing whites. But right now, a wealth of great value, deliciously succulent non-cru Muscadets with ever-increasing quality is up for grabs. It was not always thus.

Jo Landron, who began working at his family estate in 1979, explains that then: “Muscadet was a ‘vin populaire’ or ‘vin de masse.’ Producers were advised to produce volume, and fertilizers were cheap.” Events 30 years ago meant things had to change, he explained. “The 1989 and 1990 vintages were fantastic, and everyone was earning money, but the disastrous frost in 1991 gave hardly any wine.”

Price increases followed, and clients vanished. “It was terrible,” Landron continued. Thanks partly to over-fertilization, the vintage of 1992 was large, but the wines were dilute. Prices plummeted. Landron and a few other key producers realized that they needed to rethink their markets and bring more expression to their wines.

Landron knew that Melon, Muscadet’s sole grape variety, does not express its terroir at high yields. He was the first in his village, La Haye Fouassière, to experiment with reducing the yields by pruning hard.

It took a few years to work but “that put me in the spotlight.” He said that he later began to age wines for longer, and then converted to organics. He adds that it took until 2010 for the region to recover from the earlier setbacks.

Muscadet remains the largest appellation in the Loire Valley but the area under the vine has plummeted in recent decades. One retired grower in the cru of Gorges, neighboring Clisson, sold his land to the organizers of Hellfest for use as a car park.

But Julien Braud, a young grower who has taken over his parent’s estate and converted to organic, is upbeat. “The work we are doing with the crus pulls up all the lower levels. The exchanges between the domaines in creating the crus help Muscadet in general.”

Muscadet has many names

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie is the name seen on most labels. Sèvre et Maine is a regional designation for the vineyards close to the Sèvre Nantaise tributary of the Loire and the Maine river which joins it. ‘Sur lie’ indicates that wines were aged on the lees, and is one of the four key factors for Muscadet mentioned by François Lieubeau, sales director of the Famille Lieubeau estate.

He says the other factors are: the geology and terroir; the grape variety, which is unique to the region, once known as Muscadet, now as Melon de Bourgogne or simply Melon B; and, finally, Lieubeau evokes the connection with the ocean.

The Loire flows into the Atlantic Ocean just west of Nantes, once France’s largest port city and today one of the country’s most vibrant cities for technology and innovation. The ocean brings to the Muscadet region not only its relative humidity and generally benign climate but also a way of life ― a surfing, sailing, and seafood mentality, which matches the image of Muscadet wine.

Melon has a checkered history. From the same parentage as Chardonnay, but more neutral. Shunned by Burgundy, it made its way west to the Nantais area, where it was embraced as it was hardier than other local varieties. But with the changing climate today Robin says: “Melon is the first to bud and the first to harvest, so frost is a very big risk, more so than drought or hail.”

Lieubeau explains: “the best terroirs in Muscadet are on gentle slopes close to the rivers, where the soils are not deep, but these are the ones most prone to frost.”

On the other hand, a problem can be an opportunity, says Marie Chartier-Luneau of the biodynamically-run estate Domaine Luneau-Papin. “The frost has given us the opportunity to reassess where our vineyards should be planted.” 

It takes an outsider to really see the positive. Before he took over a Muscadet estate in 2021, natural winemaker Guillaume Lavie of Vins de Lavie worked most recently in Savoie and Bugey. He is a huge fan of Melon and the Muscadet terroir.

“Melon is hard to work, technical and complicated, needing lots of attention, time and patience,” says Lavie. “But it’s among the greatest grape varieties. It’s not aromatic so you must bring out the terroir in the wines. If you add non-indigenous yeasts, you wreck everything.” 

The link between the yeasts and the terroir plays a particular role in Muscadet. It’s hard to believe looking at the gentle landscape that, millions of years ago, this land was a mountain, the Armorican Massif. This has given many variations in the bedrock or subsoils, mainly igneous and metamorphic rocks, largely of gneiss, schists, gabbro, and granite. These distinctive soils can express themselves through Melon, with subtle differences in the nature of the acidity and the textures in the wines. And that’s where the yeasts come in.

Lavie explains: “the lees bring out the depth in the wines, as well as protecting them.” 

The importance of lees

Muscadet is the only region in the world where underground glass-lined concrete tanks remain prevalent. The underground location gives a constant, ideal year-round temperature of around 14°C.

The mention ‘sur lie’ on the labels means that the wines must stay on the lees until bottling in the March following harvest, at the earliest, or at the latest the following November. The crus requires a minimum of 18 to 24 months on lees, depending on the cru and they, along with others aged for longer, simply don’t include ‘sur lie’ on the label.

Thoughtful young growers like Lavie and Braud are shaking things up, as did Landron, the Luneau-Papin family, and others three decades ago. There is a wealth of excellent producers in the region, with increasing numbers working organically.

The recipe for Melon as a canvas to express the hard rock through extended lees contact brings a style that Robin happily admits is now fashionable: “an easy-drinking, low alcohol white that is fresh, salty and mineral ― an image of simplicity with fresh fruitiness and drinkability.”

5 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie to try:

bottle of Domaine Brégeon Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie

2020 Domaine Brégeon Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie (~$21)

Fred Lallier, who took over from Michel Brégeon a decade ago, really brings out the terroir in all his wines, helped along by having converted to organics a few years back. This is a quintessential, elegant Muscadet from old vines grown on dark gabbro soils in Gorges, showing a real stony character.

bottle of Jérémie Huchet Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Clos Les Montys

2020 Jérémie Huchet Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Clos Les Montys (~$17)

The 2020 vintage is still a baby and deserves buying and forgetting until next spring. A significant proportion of the vines in the clos, or walled vineyard, were planted in 1914 but are in fine health. This was the first vineyard purchased by Jérémie Huchet, now a significant producer, when he started out in 2001. It’s a fine plot by the château of the same name and close to the Muscadet marshlands near Goulaine. The wine is intensely dry and citrussy with real persistence and might work well with a cheese platter.

bottle of Julien Braud Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Les Vignes du Bourg

2020 Julien Braud Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Les Vignes du Bourg (~$17)

Julien has taken over his parent’s estate in Monnières little by little, initially working with his father until he retired. Now he sells his own wines under his personal name. A blend from several parcels, which Julien has converted to organic growing, the wine shows classic salty and lemony freshness. Julien says the gneiss soils help give roundness in the mid-palate. Enjoy with oysters.

bottle of Jo Landron Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Les Houx

2019 Jo Landron Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Les Houx (~$14)

One of a range of cuvées from the master and a pioneer of aging, Les Houx offers more structure than some Muscadets. It has 12 months on the lees in the tank, followed by at least eight months in the bottle before release. Along with structure, there is a surprising note of peach or apricot kernels, and a distinctive smoky character. Indeed, Jo Landron confirms that this biodynamically-made Muscadet, grown on top soils that are sandstone with a little quartz, is a great match with all sorts of smoked fish and meat.

bottle of Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Le Verger

2020 Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Le Verger (~$27)

It’s hard to go wrong with any cuvée from this exemplary family winery, with its long-term biodynamic practice. Le Verger, “the orchard,” comes from a single vineyard plot inherited from Janette Papin, the grandmother of the current owner Pierre-Marie; the vines were replanted in 1998. The label illustrates none other than the temptation of Adam, with Eve presenting him with an apple. It’s an appropriate image for this stonily complex and joyous wine, which is perfect as an aperitif but could equally cope with a sumptuous seafood platter.