Wine 101: French Region Deep Dives: Muscadet

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Fleur de Mer Rosé, which means flower of the sea because it’s literally grown in Provence next to the Mediterranean, which is a sea. Think turquoise waters, crystalline mountains, salty breezes. Wait, we’re talking about travel, wine, or both because all of that terroir contributes to the juicy notes of ripe strawberry, citrus, and wildflower aromas in this beautiful rosé. To experience Fleur de Mer Rosé, follow the link in the episode description to

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Muscadet, one of France’s many winemaking regions. A hop, skip, and a jump away from Bordeaux and Champagne, the region is famous for making only one grape variety — Melon de Bourgogne. Beavers shares the history of the region, as well as how this grape variety came to be. Tune in to learn more

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I just got to get this off my chest because I owned an Italian restaurant for 10 years, but I just got to say, it’s been true forever: I don’t like balsamic vinegar.

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director at VinePair, @VinePairKeith on Insta. And how are you doing?

 I’m very excited for the next six episodes. We’re going to be in France. We’re going to stick around in France, [and] talk about some wine regions you may not know about. I’ll give you more information if you want to know about them so I can give you more confidence in wine

 I love it.

OK, wine lovers. I’m pretty stoked. We’re about to dive back into France. We’ve talked about Burgundy, Champagne, and Bordeaux, and of course we can dive deeper into those and we probably should in future episodes. But for the next six episodes, we’re going to talk about other regions of France that you may or may not know about to help you explore more wines because France has got all kinds of stuff going on. Not just those three, justifiably so, famous wine regions. Let’s get started.

Today we’re going to talk about a wine, or a wine region, called Muscadet. This is a very interesting wine region in France. It’s a wine region that, like other wine regions, like Bordeaux, where Sauvignon Blanc made its way to Bordeaux from the Loire. This is a region all the way over on the Atlantic Coast that makes wine from only one variety, and that variety comes from Burgundy. If you remember back to the Burgundy episode, we talked about geographic stuff and we talked about the Massif Central, that large piece of earth that would eventually create the Côte d’Or.

Well in that Massif, there’s a certain mountain range in the Ardèche department in southwestern France, in a mountain that I cannot pronounce, Cévennes, at about over 4,000 feet in the air above sea level. This is where the Loire River begins and it starts to head north. At some point when it gets to Orléans it heads west. And then from there, it goes to the Atlantic Ocean. So from that point, that curve all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, that is what’s known as the Loire Valley. And right before the Loire Valley dumps into the Atlantic Ocean in a region called Anjou; just east of that is a very important city called Nantes — N-A-N-T-E-S.

The history’s a little foggy of course, but it’s thought that the word Nantes is an old Gaulish word for river. Cool. Because the thing is, this area, like I said, it’s right near the mouth of the Loire River and to the Atlantic. And at this part of France, it splits off into all these different tributaries and channels. Before the 1920s, the city of Nantes was like a group of 12 little islands with bridges and stuff like that. Eventually, they were filled in. But being this close to the Atlantic, of course, Nantes was a pretty important river town.

And the culture here has always been very seafood-heavy, obviously. It’s on a river going into the Atlantic. The weather here, it can be pretty severe. It can be rainy. It can be cold. How do grapes work here? Well, there’s a story. We have to go back to Burgundy, and if you haven’t listened to the Burgundy, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay episodes, go ahead and give those a listen. It’ll give you a nice little background of what we’re about to talk about here.

Because in those episodes, we talked about a point in history in the Burgundy area of France. It was once called Franche-Comté. Now it’s called Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. Comté just means county. In this county where the Burgundians were doing their thing, where two varieties primarily, the Pinot Noir variety and a grape called Gouais Blanc, did some cross-pollinating and all these different grapes were born, Aligoté, Chardonnay, and a little group called Melon – M-E-L-O-N.

Now, this little variety didn’t have what Chardonnay had. It didn’t have that malleability. It didn’t produce the body and character of what a Chardonnay would produce. It would be what we would call today a neutral variety or a blending variety. A variety that produces good acidity and decent fruit that is best to be blended into wines to help a wine get whatever it’s missing. And because of this, the fate of this variety was the same as Gamay in this region. We’ll get further into Gamay when we talk about Beaujolais coming up very soon.

 But if you’ve listened to the Burgundy episodes you know that Gamay, like I said before, there’s an anti-Gamay campaign that’s been going on in Burgundy for quite some time. It started with the royalty and there actually were royal authorities that would literally decree, “You cannot grow Gamay here.” Well, this also happened to the Melon variety and it eventually would leave Burgundy. It would hit the Loire and start heading west. But as it heads west over the next century or two, it leaves, I don’t know, a fun, small little legacy over in the Burgundy region, because there are places where the grape Chardonnay is still considered a Melon variety.

In this area, like Burgundy into the east towards the Swiss border, you’ll sometimes see Chardonnay called Melon d’Arbois or Melon d’Arlay. It’s cool to see how the name Melon has endured for so long, because the word Melon, again, nobody really knows [the origin] but there are a couple of theories. One, that it’s the roundness of the variety which would mean all of them were that round or there’s a certain shape the leaf has and that would call it Melon. But then does Chardonnay have the same leaf? I don’t know, but that’s where the Melon comes from.

So it makes sense that this variety starts moving its way west because if it’s not wanted there. Humans are like, “Let’s bring it other places to see if it’s wanted,” and to this day it’s around, but it’s primarily where it ended up. Almost 400 miles away from its home, it ends up towards the Atlantic, in and around the town of Nantes. At the time, this is about in the 17th century, there were red and white varieties growing in and around this city of Nantes.

Also, at that time the Dutch trading company was in the area because again, Nantes was a major river town. The Dutch really liked to distill wine. It was easy to trade. It was easy to sell, easy to travel. They didn’t force it upon the people of this area, but they encouraged people to plant a neutral-ish white variety so that they may use it to distill. And that would behoove vine growers because that’s a lot of money. That’s good money. So obviously people started planting more white varieties, but there were still red varieties there.

And then the winter of 1709 came and almost devastated this entire region with frost. A lot of vines were destroyed because of it. And as a result of this, instead of replanting red varieties, the people of Nantes decided to plant only white varieties, specifically a variety called Melon de Bourgogne, the Melon grape we’ve been talking about. The thing about this grape is it naturally has a hardiness to cold weather. So it was a perfect moment for them to start focusing on this variety.

Something else traveled to Nantes with this variety – a word. A word that doesn’t describe the grape. It doesn’t describe a region. It describes an idea, an aroma, something that’s prominent enough that the wine becomes that name. The word Muscadet is thought to be a testament to the wine’s ability to have a somewhat musky aroma as it traveled from Burgundy to Nantes. By the time it gets to Nantes, the grape is called Melon de Bourgogne, but the wines begin to become known as Muscadet, and eventually, a wine region pops up, and that wine region is called Muscadet.

I just find that fascinating because usually in France, the appellation, or AOC, is named after a town, Champagne, or a region, Burgundy. But here we have a wine region named after a style or an aroma within the wine. And what’s even more wild is [that] the wines from Melon de Bourgogne in Muscadet aren’t very musky. They’re actually a little bit more, I don’t know, they have a little more salinity, maybe some citrus. We’ll get into that. But it’s just some fascinating stuff. I don’t know where the Muscadet… I wonder if it was like thought of [as] a different variety while it was making its way over or something. I don’t know. But that’s how the Muscadet region came to be.

Today, the appellation is located south and east of the town of Nantes. It’s situated around these two rivers that are tributaries of the Loire River, one called Sèvre, S-E-V-R-E, and one called Maine. This whole area with the rivers and being south and east of the large city of Nantes is a very fertile place. It has low-lying areas and some rolling hills, but it’s very fertile. There are a lot of vines in this area and they are all Melon de Bourgogne. But here’s the catcher. Here’s the thing that’s going to really get you interested in what we’re talking about here.

Remember in the beginning of this episode I said, “How are grapes grown and how is wine made here?” It’s a pretty good question. We have a lean, considered neutral variety that is usually meant for blending being [that it’s] the primary varietal in a region that’s so close to the Atlantic, and it rains and it’s cold. How do these varieties produce and develop the fruit they need to make wine? Well, the answer is they don’t often do that at all.

This is so cool. The tradition in this region is to allow these wines to rest on the lees, the dead yeast cells that become lees for a long time, long enough so that that mysterious thing called autolysis happens —  that’s in the sparkling wine episode, how it’s made — imparts some depth into these wines and it’s successful to the point that this procedure is now part of the rules of this region. That’s incredible, right?

The Muscadet appellation itself is a very general appellation where the Melon de Bourgogne variety is used to make wine. And sometimes, actually, in the ’90s, they allowed some Chardonnay in there. It doesn’t sit in the lees, it’s just simple, easy-drinking, high-acid, white wine from the northern part of France. Within the Muscadet appellation, there are three sub-appellations, and that’s where things get very interesting. Two of them are small, one is very new, but one is the one we’re going to see the majority of on the American market.

You have Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu, which is a small appellation that was formed in 1994 around a very large lake. The lake is called Lac de Grand-Lieu, [which]  obviously makes sense. They were named after each other. There’s only under 800 acres and it’s only 10 percent of the output of this region. I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of it on the American market and if we do, it’s going to be a pretty special idea. Idea? Special occasion.

Then there’s Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, about 40 producers here. They do have a little bit of red wine and rosé. We’re getting close to the area southwest of Nantes where terroir starts to be a thing. In this area, they’re starting to realize the terroir. This particular one’s been around since 1936. But just southeast of Nantes is the larger appellation that pumps out about 80 percent of all of the region, that you’re going to see all over the American market. It’s called Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, which means it’s the wine region that is at the two rivers.

It really is this place that has a lot of varying geography, therefore varying terroir. It’s a place that has actually seven crus within it because terroir is being realized. It has over 600 producers of wine in it. And there’s about 19,000 acres under vine to give you a sense of this stuff. But the soil, I don’t talk a lot about the details of soil here, but I have to here because of the variance of it. You have chalky limestone soils, and you have gravel, and you have some clay, and depending on where these deposits are, depends on where the crus are going to live and this really happened recently.

In 2011, three crus were named in the area, and then in 2019, four more. So you have these seven crus, Clisson, Le Pallet, Gorges, Château-Thébaud, Goulaine, Monnières Saint-Fiacre et Mouzillon-Tillières. I don’t know if I pronounced those correctly and I can’t go into each and every one of them, but they’re something to pay attention to because of the way wine is made here. Actually, there’s talk of Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, at some point having its own crus as well.

The history here is that the lees contact — and the thing about lees contact is tricky. Sometimes lees contact can lead to some off flavors and wine, but very neutral high-acid whites like Melon de Bourgogne don’t have that. The result is a wine with actual flavor and also, I love this, a very small amount of CO2. When you’re drinking these wines, they’re so tangy, and so salty, and so good, and then they have this like little pop of fizziness somewhere inside the wine. It’s not overwhelming, and it’s not aggressive. It’s somewhere in there. You can feel it. It’s just great.

It’s like Champagne, where you have this place that is just cold. How do you do this? How do you make wine there? Well, they figured it out. They ended up making sparkling wine. Same thing here. They had this neutral variety that was intentionally put there, or expanded upon because the Dutch needed a product to distill from. They’ve turned it into a beautiful wine region. That’s just so great. And here’s how it’s made across all the little appellations.

The wine must sit on the lees between March and November in the year following the harvest. This is what’s called in France. France. Well in France, yeah. But in French, sur lies, or on the lees, S-U-R-L-I-E-S. You’re going to see that on the label when you’re looking at Muscadet in the shop. The result is this awesome wine region that has a grape from somewhere else that turned the wine into something amazing. It was all very serendipitous because you have this very neutral variety, but you’re adding depth and body and character to a little bit of fizziness through the autolysis process. That’s still mysterious to us in science, through a white wine that’s not a sparkling wine yet. It still has a little bit of CO2.

And then even cooler than that, is that these wines through this process naturally pair with the cuisine of the region. This wine for you, on the American market, is an incredible foil for seafood, bivalves, you name it. Halibut, bring it. Just Muscadet and salty briny fish, or any kind of seafood, is incredible. And that’s amazing because the variety came from Burgundy. That’s my Muscadet crash course.

You’ve probably seen the bottles there on the shelves. You just didn’t know what it [was] and now you do. So go out there, try all the different kinds. There’s a bunch of them out there and if you dig one, take a picture, put it on Instagram, and tag me at @VinePairKeith. I’ll see you guys next week. 

 @VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week. 

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.