Guide to the Lower Loire: Muscadet and the Pays Nantais
The Lower Loire is the last wine region the Loire River passes through on its way to the Atlantic ocean. Home to Muscadet -- one of the most perfect dry white wines for shellfish and more --- the Lower Loire could be the single greatest value region for white wines in the world.
The Wines of the Lower Loire Valley
Make no mistake about it: this is white wine country. And not just any kind of white wine. These are sea-side whites with an emphasis on freshness -- even by Loire standards.
The wines have citrus notes and hints of a seabreeze (the ocean is just miles away). Tasting a good bottle of Muscadet with Oysters can be one of those rare, magical pairings, where the wine reveals hidden flavors in the food just as the oysters do for the wine. The two together really are more than the sum of their parts.
Melon de Bourgogne: The Grape about Town
The Lower Loire is devoted almost exclusively to a single white grape: Melon de Bourgogne. Originally from Burgundy (“de Bourgogne” is French for “from Burgundy”), the grape is often called simply “Melon,” like a friend you’re on a first name basis with. Because it’s that kind of grape. You want to have it around when you feel like having a little fun.
You’ll come across some wines made from Folle Blanche from time to time, and may even see the occasional light red wine or Pinot Gris. But this is a region where a single, immigrant grape has found its highest calling.
Your Map of The Lower Loire: The Lay of the Land
The Lower Lower is often called the “Pays Nantais,” because the region starts around the city of Nantes. For the most part, this is fairly flat, low-lying country, although the most renowned sub-region, Muscadet de Sevre et Maine, offers gently rolling hills.
There’s no more limestone here; the soils are mostly hardened lava (igneous and metamorphic, technically), with different amounts of gneiss, mica-schist, granite, gabbro, and sand creating subtle variations in terroir and wine from site to site.
The hard, fast draining soils are key in such a moist, maritime environment and contribute to making light, minerally wines. The ocean contributes more than just salty notes: it moderates the climate throughout the year, but also makes the region damp and susceptible to disease.
Muscadet and the Pays Nantais’ Appellations
If there’s one name to know from the Lower Loire, it’s Muscadet.
Muscadet is, first of all, the name many people use when discussing any wine from the Pays Nantais. Any wine labeled Muscadet must be made with Melon de Bourgogne -- but you’ll hear the name Muscadet bandied about much more than the grape name.
Muscadet is also the name of the Nantais’ largest appellation, a sort of umbrella appellation covering many vineyards that can also choose to label their wines with one of the more specific appellations described below.
Muscadet wines are light and fresh and emphasize minerality and acidity more than fruit. There can be citrus and sometimes green apples. You can find salinity sometimes. These are wines to drink young and cold with shellfish or seafood or other light dishes.
Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine
Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine is generally considered the best region for the Melon grape, and home to the best wines in the Pays Nantais.
It is an appellation that covers the rolling hills southeast of Nantes. Wines from here can generally be labeled either Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine or straight Muscadet -- but virtually everyone who has the choice would use the more specific “Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine.”
Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine “sur lie”
“Sur lie” (in English: “on the lees”) doesn’t technically indicate a separate appellation. Rather, it tells us something important about how the wine was made: that it rested in barrel or tank in contact with its lees.
Why is this important?
First, it’s worth understanding what “lees” are. When wine goes into barrel, some very fine particles from fermentation -- spent yeast cells and such -- remain suspended in the liquid. Then, as the wine matures in barrel, those particles begin to precipitate out. Yes, the lees are essentially dead yeast cells. But stick with us, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
As the cells collect in the bottom of the barrel they begin breaking down by a process known as “autolysis.” Just as the flavor of a sourdough yeast can give a loaf of bread complexity, this autolysis gives the wine an extra layer of flavor. It can also add some roundness to the texture, balancing the wines’ otherwise very high natural acidity.
“Lees aging” isn’t unique to Muscadet. It’s also a key process in Champagne and many of the world’s greatest white wines. But note: only wines that are designated Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine can say “sur lie” on their label -- straight-up “Muscadet” can not.
The Cru Communaux
Most Muscadet is meant to be drunk young rather than aged, and to be enjoyed cool for easy-going pleasure rather than as a wine to meditate on. But some Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine can age beautifully and are well worth contemplating!
Grapes grown in particularly well-situated vineyards and farmed particularly carefully can make wines that, with time, evolve in ways that make them well worth laying down. The bracing fruit mellows (from lemon or grapefruit to tangerine, say), the salinity becomes more pronounced, and the minerality can deepen and lengthen, especially on the finish.
Most of the best of these wines come from a small number of sites in Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine’s best sub-regions, known as the Crus Communaux. These Crus are known for their distinct terroir, which gives wines that offer more complexity and a more specific sense of place than Muscadet or even Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine.
In addition to being from especially propitious terroirs, the Crus are subject to stricter rules. The vines are older and yields are lower (providing for more concentrated wines). Lees aging is longer (providing for more complexity and roundness, and giving the wines more time to come together). The wines must also pass stricter tasting panels.
We think the Crus Communaux are so great -- such an important part of the future of Loire Valley wine -- that we’re going to devote a whole post to them (so stay tuned!). But for now we’ll just note these are truly great Loire Valley whites and drop the names for you:
Clisson, Gorges, Le Pallet, Goulaine, Château-Thébaud, Mouzillon-Tillières, Monnières-Saint Fiacre, La Haye Foussière, Vallet, and Champtoceaux.
If you see any of these wines on a good wine list or at a good wine store grab one and give it a whirl!
The Nantais off-the-beaten-path
If you keep your eyes peeled in interesting restaurants or ask around at the best wine shops you’ll come across a few of these from time to time:
Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu
Although Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu is rarely seen in America, we’ve fallen in love with it at Flatiron and you’ll often find examples on the shelf.
I said above that most age-worthy Muscadets come from Crus Communeaux; the Cotes de Grandlieu is an exception. There are producers here farming as fastidiously as in the Crus, working patiently in the cellar, and giving us wines that are absolutely stunning.
Domaine du Haut Bourg, for instance, has wines that age on the lees for 7 years. That’s 14 times longer than most of the Muscadets you’ll get in a bistro and longer than all but the very best Champagnes. And it shows!
The wines do that magical thing of preserving freshness and yet showing complex flavors and stunning minerality.
And thanks to the vagaries of the market, the wines are practically a steal! Get them whenever you can.
Gros Plant du Pays Nantais
Gros Plant du Pays Nantais is an appellation devoted to the old Folle Blanche grape. Folle Blanche is best known as a key grape for the distillation of Armagnac. Because it is susceptible to rot in the damp region, it was historically harvested very early, making for searingly high-toned wines.
Today we occasionally come across delicious examples which balance fruit with freshness, though not much makes it to America.
Only a few of these make it to New York, but as the only red and rosé appellation in the Pays Nantais, they are well worth checking out. Gamay and Cabernet Franc make lean and floral reds with the soul of white wine.
Technically not part of the Loire but pretty close, the Fiefs Vendéens makes fresh whites and light reds from Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Grolleau.
Other Red and Pink Wines From The Lower Loire
Some growers in Muscadet have planted very small amounts of red grapes, mostly Cabernet Franc and Côt (the Loire name for Malbec). Because the Muscadet appellations do not permit red wines, they label them as Vin de Pays de la Loire.
There’s very little wine like this and we barely see any in America, but we do see some great ones! Marc Olivier is one of the recent generation of growers, now retiring, who labored for years to elevate Muscadet’s reputation. He also planted a tiny piece of his Clisson parcel to red grapes. The wine could be very vintage sensitive, but was always light and charming and a unique expression of the Nantais’ sea-side spirit.
This blog was published in part thanks to our sponsors: