Flatiron’s Guide to the Crus Communaux of Muscadet
To most wine drinkers, Muscadet is best known as a source of crisp, affordable dry whites that go well with seafood.
And for good reason! A straightforward Muscadet with fresh oysters is one of the world’s truly great pairings.
But... in the region’s best wines you can find all that unmistakable flavor, value, and so much more. The Crus Communaux offers site-specific character for wine geeks; complexity, depth of flavor and wonderful pairing opportunities for anyone into food, and even age-worthiness for collectors.
Read on for our guide the Muscadet’s Crus Communaux!
Undiscovered Terroirs and the Birth of Muscadet’s Crus Communaux
Muscadet isn’t a monolith. Like any great French wine region, it has varied terroirs that can make wines with distinct characteristics and qualities. Some sites are closer to the ocean and others to a river; some are near marshes and others near forests. With all these varying geographic influences, Muscadet boasts a multitude of fascinating microclimates.
Muscadet’s soils also offer compelling quality and a source for deeper research. Although you won’t find the chalky or gravelly limestones that are so important higher up the Loire, you will find fascinating soils including rarely seen “gabbro,” gneiss and orthogneiss, as well as schist and granite.
For decades, however, figuring out which Muscadets were exceptional—or even what particular terroir a Muscadet was from —was impossible for all but the most dedicated wine sleuths. In contrast to the labels of Burgundy, Alsace, or Bordeaux wines, there was scant evidence on any bottle of Muscadet to indicate which aspired to excellence. There wasn’t even information on where in Muscadet the vines grew.
Learning to navigate the region required a fair bit of trial and error. And once you found a bottle from a subregion you loved, it could be almost impossible to find other examples. To remedy this, the local producers created the Crus Communaux, a classification system that has identified and named ten of Muscadet’s best and most characterful sub-regions.
Each Cru is named after a village (or two) within those boundaries – much like the Crus of Beaujolais. And again like Cru Beaujolais (but unlike Burgundy or Alsace), there are no official vineyard designations or rankings. There are no Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyards in the Crus Communaux.
But in other respects, the Crus Communaux are nothing like Beaujolais’ Crus. While they do bear village names, the boundaries of most of the Crus were shaped in a more scientific manner. Borders were drawn to highlight specific soil types and microclimates, so that the Crus will each have their own unique character.
Hopefully, this will have the benefit of making it easier for growers to devote the resources to producing and bottling their favorite expressions of these Crus. This, in turn, will give terroir geeks and foodies the chance to dive deeper into the varieties of Muscadet’s terroirs.
One day, wine lovers will simply expect that different wines of any one Cru will share common traits. Just as we have an idea of what we think could distinguish a bottle of Volnay from a bottle of Pommard when we’re considering a wine list, we expect in the future we will be debating whether the Clisson or the Pallet will be a better pairing with our meal.
If you're ready to go deep studying the terroir of Crus right now, the good folks at the Vins du Val de Loire have created an interactive map that can let you see the geographic details with the Crus' layout.
Crus Communaux: Getting in on the ground floor
Of course, it’s still early days for the Crus Communaux. So part of the thrill of drinking these wines right now is being part of the process of discovery!
The creation of this system has its origin in the late 1980s, when artisanal winemakers who appreciated the differences in the best wines made from Muscadet’s varying terroirs began pushing to understand these differences.
Muscadet has no millenia-long history of monastic study of the soils and sites, so they created a commission to explore the region’s terrain and wines.
The work took time, though thankfully not the centuries it took the monks. It wasn’t until 2011 that the first 3 crus—Clisson, Gorges, and Palle—were announced. In addition to recognizing some very special terroirs, the Crus Communaux also imposed more stringent requirements on the growers and winemakers to ensure quality.
For instance, since growing too much fruit on a given parcel can result in lower quality berries, and therefore more dilute wines, the rules cap yields at 45hl/ha. This is about ⅓ less than the average in the Muscadet AOP, which ensures that Crus Communaux wines will have the concentration and the “stuffing” to convey their terroirs. The rules also require longer aging sur lie aging -- a minimum of eighteen to twenty-four months of aging on the lees. (For an explainer of the importance of lees aging in Muscadet, see our Intro to the Pays Nantais.)
Since the first 3 crus were named, 7 more crus have been added, making a total of ten:
- Le Pallet
- Château Thébaud
- Monnières Saint-Fiacre
- Mouzillon - Tillières
- La Haye Fouassière
Some of these crus are already becoming well-known—among wine geeks, at least. Others remain quite obscure and are still rarely seen in America. This will undoubtedly change with time as people become familiarized with the new system of The Crus Communaux. Right now, less than 5% of the vineyards that could produce wines labeled Crus Communaux do so.
This is an amazing opportunity for devoted vignerons to explore their terroirs and begin sharing the most striking examples with us. There are already about 100 growers producing Crus Communaux, but that number is growing. In five or ten (or twenty) year’s time, we’ll likely know a lot more about these regions – and the producers that work in them.
Of course, there’s no reason to wait to dive in—we get plenty of Crus Communaux wines already from the most devoted of Muscadet growers that are delicious, ageworthy and still offer incredible value. Whether you’re looking for something interesting to have with dinner tonight or something interesting to stash away in your cellar, you need to consider one of these Muscadet offerings.
Drinking the Crus Communaux
This brings us to the big question: What will a Muscadet from one of the Crus Communaux taste like?
In general, they will be deeper, usually with all the great acidity you expect in a classic Muscadet, but with more of an emphasis on elegance and also a little more weight. They tend to be a little longer, too. Many will show very precise mineral notes, while others will have a salty or floral aspect.
If you’re able to find one with bottle age (and if you came to our tasting last fall you will have seen this first hand) they can age into real stunners. The minerality persists but the bright, often citrusy fruit can develop in more exotic directions: spice and almond skin, for example.
These wines offer amazing food pairing opportunities. Sure, they’ll be great with Oysters (or other shellfish, just like most Muscadet) but a fresh and intense Clisson, for instance, would be amazing with Mark Bittman’s lemon roasted chicken recipe. And an aged Gorges, with its smoky notes and intense acidity would even be a beautiful pairing with a steak tartare that is light on the mustard and heavy on the olive oil.
Of course, the details will vary from Cru to Cru—that’s the whole point of the Crus Communaux. To help you get started exploring, here’s a list of the crus, with brief descriptions, and some examples of the wines we think you may be able to find at Flatiron Wines or elsewhere in America:
This Cru is arguably the genesis of the whole Crus Communaux. It was Andre-Michel Bregeon, one of Muscadet’s greatest artisanal producers, who was the initial driving force behind the creation of the system. As such, it was one of the first crus to be created, along with Clisson and Pallet.
Gorges is in the lower-central part of the Sèvre-et-Maine region, composed of subtly undulating hills of clay and sand, which sit atop a bedrock of Gabbro. Gabbro, which is very rarely seen outside of Muscadet, is made from cooled lava and can be dark -- even green -- in color. It seems to be one of the more important and distinctive soils of the region, producing some of Muscadet’s most age worthy wines.
On release, Gorges wines can be tightly wound and smoky, with lots of reduction and minerality. With time a little more fruit will come out, although the sultry minerality lasts.
Example: Domaine Michel Brégeon, Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Gorges
Another of the first crus to be admitted, and a well-known source of some of the finest wines in Muscadet. In fact, it may be the most recognizable Cru here in the States, due to the popularity of Pepiere’s extraordinarily good example.
Clisson is all about granite, having an abundance of the soil because it lies near a fault line. The wines of Clisson are, like those of Gorges, age-worthy and substantial, chiseled but a little more richly fruit-expressive and open on release.
Example: Domaine de la Pèpiere, Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Clisson
This is a curious Cru that sort of flies in the face of everything you’ve just read. Though Le Pallet is right in the heart of the Sèvre-et-Maine region, surrounded by other crus, it doesn’t have a signature soil type. It’s actually quite a hodge-podge: gneiss, orthogneiss, granite and gabbro.
These are soils most often associated with the highest-quality wines of the region, but it makes it hard to generalize. Standing further in relief to the other crus, the biggest producer of Le Pallet is a co-op that doesn’t focus on single-sites, but blends of various soils, which include portions of wine aged in oak – quite atypical for Muscadet!
One trait that does bind this cru: a warmer microclimate that guarantees good ripeness.
Example: anything produced by Vignerons du Pallet
Monnières-Saint-Fiacre occupies the interior space where the Sèvre and Maine rivers merge, taking on a triangular shape.
The principal soil type here is clay made of decomposed Gneiss. It imbues the wines with density, and flavors of ripe, candied citrus. Like those of Gorges, these wines can be quite expressive of smoke and rocks, but here the wines are a little flashier and more muscular out of the gate.
Example: Gadais Père & Fils, Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Monnieres Saint Fiacre
The wines from this Cru show less obvious structure than those of say Clisson or Monnières-Saint-Fiacre and emphasize refinement, with hints of anise and herbs followed by a saline finish. The wines often see extremely long lees aging -- as long as 36 to 48 months!
Château-Thébaud is a terroir of tall slopes with sandy topsoils and subsoils mostly of a particular calco-alkaline granite (granodiorite), and gneiss from that granite.
Tasting next to a 2017 Monnières-Saint-Fiacre, the 2017 Château-Thébaud from Pèpiere showed a lighter, pale citrus character, with a gentle, elegant structure and more pronounced creaminess, no doubt in part from the extended lees aging.
Another Example: Chéreau Carré, L'Orée du Château la Turmelière Château Thébaud
One of the two easternmost crus (along with Vallet). Like Gorges, Mouzillon-Tillères abounds in gabbro and clay. Unsurprisingly, wines from here bear some resemblance to those of Gorges, emphasizing minerality and acidity, though the Sanguèze river and wooded lands give this Cru it’s own character: finely structured, subtly and pleasantly bitter, with complex aromas of classic citrus speckled with herb, orchard fruit and even understated spices.
Examples: Unfortunately, we don't often see producers from this region imported, but the Cru's website has a list of producers to be on the lookout for.
The only Cru from beyond the Sèvre et Maine area, Champtoceaux vines are located on both banks of the Loire, giving this a completely unique microclimate with excellent ventilation. The soils are fairly complex (mica schist, gneiss, and amphibolite).
The wines are admired, when young, for their silky textures, floral aromatics (think orange blossoms) and fresh fruit flavors. Of course, with age, they take on more complexity, showing spice and even pastry notes.
Examples: Again, examples are still rare on these shores, although some (like Landron Chartier, are well reviewed in the French Wine Press). They host a good list here.
Goulaine is a unique terroir among the Crus Communaux. Although we don't often see wines labeled as "Goulaine" in America, fans of Luneau-Papin should note that at least two of their wines, ‘Terre de Pierre’ and ‘Excelsior,’ hail from this cru.
Goulaine's borders may make it look like one of the largest Crus, but much of it is marshland, and vines are primarily planted on elevated, exposed bedrock, although there are also areas with deeper, sandy topsoils. The subsoils are primarily schistous, but there are exceptions: gneiss can also be found in places, and the rocky hill where ‘Terre de Pierre’ is planted is made of a rare rock known as Serpentinite.
This is Muscadet's warmest microclimate and Goulaine's grapes are typically the first to ripen in the region. Given the relatively easy ripening, it's no wonder the wines are known for ripe, even opulent, fruit, balanced by the Pays Nantais' ineluctable freshness and tension: pear and peach flavors give way to quince and dried fruit and fine acidity on the finish.
Examples: Look out for Luneau-Papin's ‘Terre de Pierre’ and ‘Excelsior.
La Haye Fouassière is the westernmost cru, with shallow, pebbly soils over orthogneiss bedrock. This is another of the earlier-maturing Crus: grapes reach maturity here at a faster than usual rate.
The wines are extremely expressive but maintain not only the classic Loire freshness, but also a lovely sense of refinement, with fresh herb notes (hinting at mint) and lots of minerality from those stony soils. In addition to be fast-maturing, the wines are understood to require less time on the lees than most Crus: the minimum here is only 18 months.
Examples: Again, so far we rarely see wines labeled as La Haye-Fouassière in America, but we do great wines from the Cru that just aren't labeled as such, including Jo Landron’s excellent Fief du Breuil.
Along with Mouzillon-Tillières, this is one of the easternmost and northernmst Crus. It is far enough inland to have a microclimate that promotes later ripening. Soils here are primarily sandy and/or sandy clay over mica schist (with pockets of Gabro).
Maybe it's the unique ripening cycle or maybe it's the clay in the soil, but Vallet's wines are known for being highly expressive aromatically (fruit and flowers) and rich and elegant on the palate.
Examples: Vallet's another Crus that is still under-repesented in America, but a list of Vallet producers is here.