Springtime Spell with Muscadet de Bourgogne

Springtime Spell with Muscadet de Bourgogne

As the vibrant hues of spring begin to unfurl across the landscape, a sense of anticipation fills the air, echoing the renewal and promise that this season embodies. In the heart of Pays Nantais, where the Loire River meanders gracefully, spring breathes new life into the vineyards of Muscadet de Bourgogne (MdB), casting a spell of transformation upon the terroir.

With each tender bud bursting forth, the legacy of centuries-old winemaking traditions intertwines with the rhythm of nature's awakening. Against the backdrop of azure skies and gentle breezes, the stage is set for a symphony of growth and vitality, as MdB grapes prepare to embark on their journey from vine to bottle amidst the enchanting embrace of springtime..

This week at City Vino, we have a tasty 2022 Chateau de la Chesnaie Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie that has a pale lemon-green color. It definitely brings out a sense of springtime with aromas of acacia blossoms, lemon-lime citrus, lime zest, seashells-minerality and green apples. Flavors on the palate include peach, apricot, passion fruit, wet stone and saline. Perfect pairings would include seafood; oysters; ceviche; fondue; grilled cheese; gruyere; raclette; or dishes with tarragon, chives, garlic, or turmeric.

A little bit of background on the grape: It is presumed that MdB is indigenous to Burgundy, thus the moniker Bourgogne makes sense. The Romans had come to the northwest region of France and named it Muscadet, where they cultivated this white wine. It was an appealing work-horse grape, producing sizable clusters. Further cementing Muscadet and the bigger region Pay Nantais as a wine country was the ready access to the Atlantic, being home to many French Kings until Louis XIV and, before the coming of the railway, its proximity to Paris, could easily transport wine by river.

About the 11th century, the Duke of Burgundy’s attitude toward wine had changed about the wine produced in region. The intent was to improve the quality of wine produced. Any simple, peasant wine would be uprooted. By the 1700s this meant that MdB and Gamay, which still were not liked by the aristocrats, were replaced with the prettier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.

The Dutch moved into the Pays Nantais wine region in the late 1600s. Given the easy access to shipping and trade, this made the Dutch powerful here. The merchants discovered the MdB grapes were well suited for distilling and making brandy, which then became the regions’ industry. The regions supported many different varietals of both red and white wines until 1709, when a severe frost devastated almost all the vineyards. Cash-strapped vintners needed a quick-growing wine to recover. MdB’s varietal queitites was the answer, and the other red varietals were not planted in any commercial quantity thereafter.

Around 1860, growers in Pays Nantais were starting to feel the effects of Phylloxera infestation. It took until the mid-1880s to reach its height and a solution of the American rootstock was discovered. As a result, a large-scale regrating program was authorized across the Loire Valley.

The Pays Nantais appellation parallels about 56 miles of the Loire River from the ocean. Pays Nantais experiences the highest effect of the Atlantic Ocean, which brings in cool, wet conditions upon this growing region. Here, the climate offers cool springs, warm and humid summers, and the threat of rain at any time. Rain hazards exist in March and April during flower and fruit set, and then again in September during harvest. The former is the threat of reduced yields. The latter is the threat of damaged, blotted, diseased fruit. But the Ocean does ward off the threat of spring frosts because ocean breezes don’t lend to allowing frost to develop on flowers.

The humidity and number of rains does require the vineyards to be on guard for spraying to prevent fungal disease. Canopy management can be designed to ventilate, which reduces humidity resting on grapes. Also canopy management is critical to prevent sunburnt grapes in the mid growing season.

Mostly the terrain is flat with some south-facing banks on the Loire. The soil is on Massif Armorican schist, mica schist, gneiss (metamorphic granite), granite sands, gabbro, amphibolite bedrock with sandy, stony soils. Why is this important? The mica reflects sunlight back up into the vines, which is especially needed on the number of cloudy, rainy days. The soil is porous, where the water drains right through, not leaving the roots to be in cold water. The minerals in the soil are grabbed up by vines and expressed in the fruit.

In the vineyard, MdB is a pretty hardy variety, making it well suited for cool regions. It buds early, which gives the March and April rain a chance to cause a hazard of yield reduction. Then it ripens early before the fall rains start in September. It can produce high yields without loss of quality. It is resistant to powder mildew. It is susceptible to downy mildew and bunch rot. Timely sparing helps to ensure healthy fruit, but adds to the cost. It is at home with metamorphic schist and granite soil. The porous attribute of the soil means that 788ml of rain per annum will drain quickly and not cause the roots to slow down from being wet and cold in the spring. The vines produce a second set of buds should the region be affected by spring frost.

Fermentation—making alcohol—is the result of the yeast eating the sugar. In cooler years, when MdB is harvested, the berries do not have enough sugar to produce a stable wine. To correct this problem, chaptalization (adding sugar so the yeast can raise the wine to a stable alcoholic level) is permitted up to 12 percent ABV potential alcohol.  Typically, MdB is fermented and aged in large, shallow underground glass-lined concrete vats, though stainless steel is also used. Melon makes wine with high acidity, a light body and at the low to low end of medium alcohol. The wines typically have low aromatic intensity (green apple), which is often made sur lie (see below). Classically, the MdB will undergo Sur lie aging where the winemaker will periodically bâtonnage. In order to add the term “sur lie” to any of the AOCs, the wine must have spent time on the fine lees. It cannot be bottled any earlier than March 1st (spending just a couple weeks on the lees) and November 30th (spending several months on the lees) of the year following the harvest.

The resulting wine tends to have aromas and flavors lemon, lime, green apple, and pear with a touch of salinity. Additionally on the palate, the lees aging is expressed in a creamy texture that adds body and complexity. Depending on how long the wine is kept on the lees will determine how detectable this added body is, and it is driven by what the winemaker has envisioned for the wine. The wines are acceptable to good in quality, with some very good examples, and they are inexpensive to mid-priced. From 2018, basic Muscadet AOC may include up to 10 percent Chardonnay.


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