By Celia Strong
Some wines just have the best stories to go with them, and sometimes these stories make the wines taste all that much better. Hopefully, that’s the case this week.
The original name for our grape variety this week is “Melon de Bourgogne.” Literally translated from French this means “melon from Burgundy,” but we should probably accept that in Old French it could also mean “grape from Burgundy.”
This variety grew in the Burgundy region until it was ordered destroyed in the early 1700s. In 1709, though, west of Burgundy on the Atlantic coast of France, near Nantes and the mouth of the Loire River, there was a very harsh winter and most of the vines there died. Dutch traders, who traveled across France from Burgundy and the Netherlands further east to the Atlantic Ocean and the Loire delta, encouraged using melon vines to replace those that had died. There is evidence that Louis XIV, the Sun King, ordered the melon vines to be planted after the hard freeze of 1709.
Muscadet is the current name for the wines made from these grapes. This name originated as a reference to the characteristics of the wines made from melon grapes. “Vin qui a un goût musqué,” translates as “Wines with a musk-like taste.” The name Muscadet is an exception in French wine laws. AC wines, across France, are named for their growing region, and only in Alsace are they named for their grape variety. None are named for what the wines might taste like.
About 80 percent of Muscadet wines are Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine appellation wines. (There are two other sub-appellations, but their wines are rarely available.) Established in 1936, this appellation covers over 20,000 acres of vineyards in 21 villages, all located near the mouth of the Loire River, near where its tributaries, the Sèvre and the Maine rivers, join it. The soil for the appellation is rich in magnesium and potassium, with clay, gravel and sand over gneiss, schist, granite and volcanic rock subsoils. Much of this soil comes from thousands of years of oysters and shellfish living on the water’s edge and their shells decomposing over time. How perfect that the soil where Muscadet grapes grow makes these wines a perfect partners for oysters.
Muscadet is a white grape with basic flavors that are very neutral. More than almost anywhere else, these wines are fermented and aged with their lees (grape skins and pulp). By stirring the wine, “bâttonnage,” the lees and dead yeast cells are circulated through it repeatedly and help develop flavors and textures. The wines are bottled in the spring or early summer following the harvest. They are light-bodied, very crisp and dry, and can show a bit of salinity. Often, left over carbon dioxide from the bottling process can leave the wines with a slight prickly sensation. Muscadet wines are usually drunk within two or three years of their vintage.
Oysterman is the name of our new Muscadet. The grapes come from 25- to 60-year-old vines. They are hand harvested, fermented in stainless steel and bottled, for the 2017 vintage, in June 2018, just before the wine was shipped. Served very chilled, this wine pairs well with oysters. Its acidity, freshness, minerality, and hint of brininess make a great example of what these two can do together. Served a bit warmer, there are floral and white and yellow fruit notes that show. Great as an apéritif and with roasted or grilled seafood. Our chance to drink melons from Burgundy. For $16.99. Enjoy.
Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines on Lady’s Island.