There is a point in both Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler and in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya when a young woman gazes out of a window and sighs, “September already…how will we ever get through the winter?” Now I appreciate gloom as much as any 19th century Norwegian or Russian, but for those of you with similar thoughts, I have a one word answer: Oysters!
After four months without an R in their names, Oysters are once more in season. Actually, they never really go out of season, but traditions die hard. I have never had too many oysters (I’m sure it wont be pretty when I do) and I had my first dozen of the new season a few nights ago. They brought back memories of my wild youth, in particular a breakfast of oysters and Muscadet in Berlin back in the days when it was a divided city (bad) and the dollar was strong (good) and I had just…never you mind (amazing) but this blog is about wine.
Muscadet is a white wine from the coast of Brittany, where the Loire empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and home to some of France’s best oysters. Before saying any more about the wine, I want to assure those who do not like slurping down cold, slippery things that may still be alive — although I can’t imagine why you would not –that this wine also goes very will with any simply prepared seafood, not just oysters. The name is confusing. It sounds very much like Muscat, which in most but not all cases makes very sweet wines. Muscadet, however, is as dry as wine can get. To further complicate matters, Muscadet is neither the name of the place where the grapes are gown (as is the case with most French wines) nor is it the name of the grape from which it is made. The grape is the Melon de Bourgogne. As the name would indicate originated in Burgundy but I have no idea why it is called melon. By the 17th century, the perfectionist monks who dominated winemaking in Burgundy had decided that the melon made such bad wine that they outlawed its cultivation. But the fascinating thing about wine grapes is that they yield very different results in different places and the melon thrived on the Breton coast where the Dutch bought it up to make Brandy. In the early 20th century, as trains and (later) cars made it possible for more and more people to go on seaside holidays, the wine was discovered by Parisians and became popular, especially among the bohemian set, who lived on cheap foods like oysters. At least they were cheap back then.
Muscadet had a fad wine about 20 years ago that lead to over production and that hurt quality. But serious producers reduced their yields and improved their practices and now the best Muscadet are excellent, with a briny minerality that is a breath of the sea and an acidity that has the same effect on seafood as a squeeze of lemon. Muscadet production is huge, so prices are low and there is no reason not to look for the best. It will cost between about $12.00 and $17.00 at the very top of the range.
So how will you know the best Muscadet? First, look for the words “sur lie” which will appear on the label and (just in case you missed the words there) embossed on the neck of the bottle. Sur lie means “on the lees” and indicates that the wine has spent time after fermentation resting on the fine “lees” or sediment of spent yeast cells that fall out of suspension in the wine. The decomposition of the yeast cells (called autolysis) imparts a richer, fuller flavor and sometimes leaves a little carbon dioxide in the wine, giving it a slight spritz. The fruit aromas will be of citrus and green apples. I don’t mean Granny Smith apples; I mean the little green kind that the song tells us God didn’t make. But Muscadet is not about fruit, it’s about minerals. The soils in the region are granite, gneiss and amphibolite and the wine tastes like stones. I can’t really explain how that can be such a good thing, but it is and it’s something Muscadet producers all talk about. Guy Bossard, an excellent producer, even names his wines “Expression de Granite” or “Expression de Gneiss” (my recommendation this week) according to the soils of the particular vineyards. Other excellent producers to seek out are Domaine de la Pepiere, Domaine de la Louvetrie, Serge Batard, and Luneau-Papin. An excellent source for terrific Muscadet is Chambers Street Wines in New York City. They are Muscadet fanatics and sometimes even have older vintages. Conventional wisdom is that this wine does not age well. We in the know beg to differ.
And I still consider oysters and Muscadet to be the breakfast of champions.
To find Muscadet near you, visit www.winesearcher.com.
Our Nepenth columnist, Ross Wasserman has had a house in Sharon Springs since his great grandfather purchased a summer home in the village in the 1890’s. He owned and ran a restaurant in the region that won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year of his proprietorship. He now runs the New York office of Benson Marketing Group, a public relations and marketing agency specializing in wine. (Full disclosure will be offered whenever a wine with which he has a professional connection is recommended.)