There can be little doubt that mankind’s constant desire for novelty is what drives the world forward. If some inquisitive Fred Flintstone hadn’t got bored of his cave and started to wonder what lay outside, it’s entirely possible that we would still be living troglodyte lifestyles, where the epitome of entertainment would be drawing on the walls.
So we should resist the temptation to disparage the notion of fashion, because it is the search for the next big thing which enables progress. As a middle-aged man, it is too easy to look back to some mythical gilded era when everything was better; but that simply wouldn’t be true. Although not every single innovation hits the mark, progress has unarguably given us a more comfortable, healthier, more prosperous life than ever before.
This is particularly true in the wine world. It wasn’t that long ago that our choice of wine was extremely limited, the quality of what we found in the bottle was by no means guaranteed, and finding a bottle of something halfway decent meant spending the kind of money which made pleasurable wine-drinking the preserve of those with deep pockets. For everyone else, there was much mediocrity, and a lot that was worse, such as the abomination that was Piat d’Or.
Unfortunately, our obsession with drinking the next big thing has had the side-effect of consigning some wines which didn’t deserve it to relative obscurity. Whilst few will shed a tear for Blue Nun, Black Tower or Mateus Rosé, the fickle finger of fashion has also side-lined such delights as Sherry, Mosel Riesling and Muscadet.
In the 1970s and 1980s, no restaurant wine list was without at least one Muscadet. If you were eating seafood, and, in particular, shellfish, it was the go-to wine: bone-dry, fresh with an almost salty tang, and with an approachable alcohol level (Muscadet is the only table wine appellation in France with a maximum permitted alcohol level of 12 per cent).
So what happened to make it fall out of fashion? First, demand started to outstrip supply, and, as a result, quality fell. Too many Muscadets were being made with quantity rather than quality in mind, with bland, anodyne, watery wines resulting. At the same time, we were widening our horizons, discovering Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Picpoul de Pinet.
Consumers moved on, and Muscadet fell out of favour. But as canny wine-lovers know, it is often the unfashionable wines where great value is to be found. And that is certainly true today for Muscadet.
Made in north-western France, near the mouth of the mighty river Loire, Muscadet is almost exclusively made from one grape variety: the Melon de Bourgogne (I say almost exclusively, because up to 10 per cent Chardonnay is permitted in generic Muscadet, something which is not widely known).
Introduced by the Dutch in the 1600s, Melon de Bourgogne is generally known simply as ‘Muscadet’ nowadays, except in Burgundy itself, where tiny amounts are still grown. It is a grape which resists cold weather well, so ideal for the relatively northern and exposed plains of the Atlantic coast.
Recognising that their once modish wine was in danger of disappearing from wine lists completely, Muscadet producers started to get their act together in the 1990s, drawing up stricter regulations, and experimenting with new techniques such as barrel fermentation. The result today – if you buy carefully – is a white wine which is peerless for matching with seafood, and which can be had at fashion-free, wallet-friendly prices.
There are a few things you need to look out for on the label. The first is the words ‘Sur Lie’. This means that the wine has spent the winter following its production on its ‘lees’, the deposits of yeast at the bottom of the fermenting vat. Most wines are racked off their lees in case ‘off’ flavours are imparted to the wine, but with Muscadet, leaving the wine on its lees adds a certain richness and depth of flavour that just works.
The second thing to look out for are the zonal appellations. These come from a more defined area, and with stricter regulations, and the result is better, more interesting wines. The zone which most people will know is Muscadet-Sèvre-et-Maine, which is the largest and arguably the best of the zonal ACs; Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire and Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu are both smaller but nevertheless interesting.
The most recent innovation has been the introduction of the Muscadet Crus Communaux appellation for the region’s top wines. With long lees ageing, these have the potential to improve with age (with almost all other Muscadet, you should drink the youngest available).
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
Skylark Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuve Close
Made by Norfolk’s Chet Valley vineyard by the Charmat method (the same as Prosecco), this is considerably more interesting than its Italian cousin, with a fresh acidity and pleasing appley palate. It needs no further recommendation than to say it was the fizz served at the Feast magazine Christmas party.
Lustau Amacenista Oloroso ‘Pata de Gallina’
Waitrose, £17.99 for 50cl bottle
Much like Muscadet, Sherry is a resolutely untrendy wine which therefore represents tremendous value. This is a dry Oloroso, with a complex caramel/coffee/fig/date nose, and a very long-lasting palate of toffee and bitter orange.
Maynards 40 Year Old Aged Tawny Port
Very much a case of buy it when you see it, because at this price it doesn’t stay on the shelf long: 40 year old tawny port from a pukka producer, for less than half of what you would expect to pay. Nutty, figgy, long and hugely complex, this is probably the best value bottle I bought last year.
Article published in Feast Issue 43