The fall oyster-eating season—months ending in “er”—spawned from an old belief that oysters weren’t edible in summer. Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, sales of the slippery mollusk were banned in New York City, which in its day, counted oyster cultivation among its chief industries.
Now, of course, oysters are safely enjoyed throughout the summer, but for diehards, the fall hails a tradition that’s as enduring as shedding white linens after Labor Day. So what's the best way to enjoy them throughout the autumn season? The options are endless.
The corkscrew takes its place along the shucking knife, because oyster season is another reason to drink Muscadet, a bracing wine that complements the brackish bivalves.
Oysters are just an excuse, really, to talk about Muscadet, which is far from an innocuous wine you slosh down your throat.
“Muscadet is one thing to a lot of people—an innocuous white wine you serve with oysters,” says Damien Casten of Candid Wines, an importer in Chicago. “People have an idea that’s all it is. But there are so many options for it.”
He only hints at Muscadet’s identity crisis, which begins with its name. It’s often confused with wines that sound the same— Moscato, Muscat, Moscato d'Asti, Moscatel/Muscadel…
Second, as Casten alludes, it’s been long maligned as a frivolous wine—too light and too quaffable to be taken seriously. But lately, it’s been gaining ground as wine drinkers are more willing to explore under-the-radar and, especially, wallet-friendly wines.
France’s other white wine
Muscadet comes from the western edge of the Loire Valley, the third largest wine region in France, and the largest white wine producer. The appellation loops around the city of Nantes like a fish hook—appropriate, given its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean not only creates a maritime climate, but also gives some of the wines their briny character—proof of what “grows together goes together.”
It’s a single-variety vineyard, meaning all you’ll find here is Melon de Bourgogne, the light-bodied and intensely mineral grape from which Muscadet is made. The grape originated in noble Burgundy, but was abandoned there in the 16th century. In the Loire, however, it is king: It’s the highest volume of wine produced in the 170-mile wide Loire Valley.
The Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine sub-appellation, named for the two rivers that run through the region, is the highest in quality and most productive of the three sub-appellations. Half the wines are matured sur lie, or on the lees, giving them complexity, body and sometimes a little fizz.
Muscadet has enthusiastic champions at home, few more fervent than Pierre-Jean Sauvion, a fourth-generation winemaker, who at 33, looks more like a teenager than a scion of a storied estate. He’s both a comedian and dramatist—dual roles required for communicating the attributes of his wine—and is one of the more visible faces of Muscadet.
“I look young because I’ve been drinking Muscadet since I was three,” he says. The wine, he claims, is also behind his self-appointed title as the “Pleasure Maker of the Loire.”
Sauvion loves to talk, and among his favorite subjects is Muscadet’s image problem: It gives him the opportunity to convince people that this wallflower is actually the life of the party.
“My father taught me to open a bottle only with good friends,” he said. “The best bottle I ever drank was a Château du Cléray (his own wine) with my girlfriend; the worse I ever drank was a Château du Cléray with my enemy.”
When you do catch him between acts, Sauvion will speak about Muscadet with solemnity.
“Consumers know Muscadet, but they don't know the new Muscadet; they think it's their grandfather's wine,” he told me on a recent visit. “There is an identity to this region-fruit and mineral that is about freshness, fineness and elegance.”
He shrugged over his glass. “I'm working on more the evolution than the revolution. We haven't made our best vintages yet.”
His peer, Lionel Metaireau, another young winemaker at Caves de la Nantaise, one of the Famille Bougrier wineries, agrees.
He says not even the French understand the wine. About 70 percent of it ends up on the supermarket shelf and almost none of it goes into a cellar.
“Even in France, they don't know Muscadet can age,” he says. Its high acidity and minerality give it longevity over many whites, and with age, Muscadet can taste like a Chablis or white Burgundy at a fraction of the cost. But, Metaireau says, because there are so few examples of aged Muscadet in the United States, not many people know that.
“Muscadet is complicated right now; it is going through a difficult period,” he told us. He thinks part of the crisis would be resolved if producers made a fruitier wine that customers can embrace. But that not only bucks tradition—currently, it bucks French wine laws.
“We can emphasize the fruits and richness. It will still be austere, but not like licking a rock,” he says.
In addition to young ambassadors, Muscadet has plenty of elder statesmen like Joseph “Jo” Landron of Domaine de la Louvetrie, who’s as famous for his impressive mustache as he is for his well-crafted wines. His fully biodynamic estate is testimony to Muscadet’s prestige and potential, and produces wines from hand- harvested site-specific plots—just as classical regions have done for centuries.
“We have the same possibility as other regions, and we can prove something about Muscadet,” he says, adding that he hopes that a more intellectual focus on the appellation will lead to at least one cru designation for Muscadet.
“We'd like something that recognizes the effort for lower yields, longer time on lees,” he says. “We don’t have to produce a lot. To me, it’s more interesting to promote what we have and what we can make.”
“In Muscadet,” Landron says, “We are seeing a new generation who have been waiting for something to happen here.”
The young Sauvion already sees something happening.
“I’m the first generation of people who don’t drink what their parents did,” he said “Muscadet will increase because it’s easy to drink, relax and not too complicated—I want the feelings from the wine—not the details.”