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Muscadet makes itself the perfect oyster wine

An old-fashioned wine from the Loire tries to justify itself to modern drinkers. Jon Bonné considers its virtues.

Muscadet, the white wine of France's western Loire Valley, is a throwback to wine's old days. In the modern world, where wine is fetishized, ranked and paraded like a show pony, it's hard for Muscadet to keep up the pace.

But if Muscadet isn't an easy wine to love, it's a wine worth loving.

Made from the melon [meh-LAWN] de Bourgogne grape, Muscadet is tart and vivacious, an inexpensive wine that makes up in versatility what it lacks in depth. The melon variety (which has nothing to do with the fruit of the same name) first appeared in the western Loire near the city of Nantes in 1635, as Dutch traders plied the local rivers and expanded vineyard plantings. Banned in its native Burgundy, melon took hold in the Loire when a nasty freeze in 1709 killed off most red-grape vines.

The grape itself doesn't offer much flavor (the Dutch wanted to distill spirits from it) which is why most Muscadets are made "sur lie": rather than being drained off, the wine sits on its lees — a mix of grape skins, dead yeast cells and such — from fermentation during fall harvest until at least the following March. Lees contact enriches the texture and freshness, and can add a hint of carbonation.

When well made, the resulting dry wines offer subtle floral and citrus aromas, and an unmistakable freshness. French regulations limit alcohol to a low 12.1 percent. Most notable, though, is a distinct mineral taste that comes through, thanks in large part to robust soils of gneiss, micaschists and amphibolites.

If this all sounds wonky, that's because it has nothing to do with the sort of wines that have gained favor with most drinkers. To make things worse, Muscadet producers have fallen prey to overproduction, uneven quality and a lot of leftover supply. Both on its native ground and overseas, it's a hard sell.

"It's difficult to say there was a golden era of Muscadet," says wine importer Joe Dressner of Louis/Dressner Selections, the unofficial U.S. arbiter of all things Muscadet. "Even when it's well made, it's outside the zeitgeist of modern markets."

Something (shell)fishyYet the wines have their virtues. Muscadet's crispness has long made it an appealing match with shellfish, particularly oysters. Muscadet vineyards lie just a few dozen miles from the north Atlantic coast; the maritime climate is on the moist, cool side and the proximity to the seaside have reinforced this reputation.

That gives the wine a certain appeal at this time of year, when oysters are back in season. At the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive, which overlooks the oyster beds of Samish Bay in Bow, Wash., Muscadet remains the top pour by the glass.

"It has a certain acidity to it, which you need with oysters," says Oyster Bar owner Guy Colbert, who features two Muscadets on his wine list.

Muscadet also has, or should have, a profound minerality that shines through the grape's largely neutral flavors and can further enhance the oyster experience. They are a defining note for the wine's fans. "I want to feel that some guy took a ray gun and melted a bunch of rocks," Dressner says.

Muscadet's future isn't bright right now. Two years ago, the French government approved a plan to pull a large swath of the 32,000 acres of vines planted to make Muscadet, hoping to convince vineyard owners to reduce their yields and focus on better-quality wine. Dressner also blames poor choices of vine stocks and a widespread reliance on machine harvesting, which can damage the grapes.

Well-made Muscadet has always been a terrific deal; the average bottle retails for around $10. But its lack of popularity and the large stocks of mediocre wine that sullied its reputation have given vintners in the region little motivation to reduce their grape yields and improve quality.

A few remain committed to quality, though, and if you're willing to hunt for it, great Muscadet can be found. Producers such as Marc Ollivier insist on hand-harvesting and careful selections of original vine stock, while others, such as Guy Bossard and Pierre and Monique Luneau-Papin, have committed themselves to biodynamic or natural farming practices. While viewed primarily as a young wine, more carefully made bottlings can age for a decade or more, the acidity helping to maintain the wine's freshness.

Muscadet may find respect hard to come by in a global market — and even at home in France, where its reputation is hardly better than in the United States.  But a good one, perhaps paired with shellfish, can be thrilling. If nothing else, it is unique: Aside from a few tiny U.S. plantings, the melon grape is grown almost nowhere but in the western Loire, which makes Muscadet the rare wine with a unique sense of place.

"It's not something we could do here," Dressner says, "and that's part of the charm."

TASTING NOTESFew of the ordinary, dull wines from the standard Muscadet appellation make it to the United States. You're most likely to find wines from the Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine appellation, sourced from a slice of the Loire's south bank just east of the city of Nantes. Sèvre et Maine wines, which account for some 85 percent of the region's output, usually offer the best quality, though the Côtes de Grandlieu area, southwest of Nantes, also produces good wines. (Almost no wine from the remaining subregion, Côteaux de la Loire, makes it to the United States.)

All wines are from the Sèvre et Main appellation and were bottled sur lie, except as noted.

Domaine de la Louvetrie 2004 (Vin de Garde, $11): Refreshing; on the sharp side and slightly fizzy.  Drying in the mouth and salty at first, with a juicy finish and solid minerality.

Domaine de la Pepière 2004 (Louis/Dressner, $10): A classic offering from vintner Marc Ollivier. Fresh and tart, with bright grapefruit and lime, and that pronounced minerality. Long, generous finish.

Marc Ollivier 2004 Clos des Briords (Louis/Dressner, $13): Ollivier’s single-vineyard old vines offering. Vibrant tamarind and lime around an ample mineral core, with a stony finish. Slightly more subtle than the standard-issue Pepière, with good potential for aging.

Chateau de la Cantrie 2004 (Grape Expectations, $8): Best value of the tasting. Offers lime and tart apple up front, with a zing and a great stony core. Finishes on a bright, thirst-quenching note.

Domaine de la Quilla 2003 (Robert Kacher, $10): Great example from a difficult year. Slightly briny, with bold citrus and sour apple, laid atop well-defined mineral notes and an austere finish. Excellent oyster wine.

Luneau-Papin 2002 Terroir de Schistes Semper Excelsior Clos de Poyet (Louis/Dressner, $27): A very rare beast. This limited bottling from the all-schist Clos de Poyet vineyard gets an extended rest on lees for one year, well beyond official guidelines, so the wine isn’t labeled as traditional sur-lie Muscadet. Rich and evocative, with ripe nectar and citrus, a gorgeous mineral core (hence the name) and a lingering mandarin-orange finish. As layered as good white Burgundy, it’s crisp and stunning – more Chablis than Muscadet. Meant to age, it’s a curious, compelling wine.