wine and shellfish

Muscadet is an introvert. It smiles when it ought to, it’s well-groomed, but it doesn’t have the style of Burgundy or the panache of Bordeaux. This is not investment banker’s wine because it’s difficult to spend $500 on a bottle of Muscadet. Actually, it’s hard to spend $30 on a bottle of Muscadet. And like most introverts, it’s the context you see it in that matters. It doesn’t shine when it’s surrounded by Zinfandels or ribs marinated in Dr. Pepper (though, not much does). It’s sneaky, subtle, and often a pleasant surprise.

I recently had a long lunch at Little Bird in Portland and with a dozen pristine left-coast oysters there’s nothing I would rather have than a bright Muscadet—which they had by the glass. Here’s Edward Behr’s description of Muscadet and Melon de Bourgogne (the varietal) in the Art of Eating Summer 2010, Vol 85, “The Flavor of Stone”:

“The aromas of Muscadet are subtle, hinting at lemon peel, pear, white peach, and flowers with, in a ripe vintage, often a touch of fennel or licorice. What makes the wine special is its extraordinary minerality: tastes of wet stone, flint, and earth with a saline, acidic finish.”

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Can you think of a description that would fit raw shellfish better? The problem is, Muscadet has had a bit of a branding problem. It has always had that reputation of pairing well with all kinds of seafood, but because of overproduction, poor quality, and careless negociants, the region exported an inferior product for years so its status has been on the wain. The good news is that like most regions in France that have suffered a similar fate, there are holdouts and new recruits that are turning out very high quality wines that could be some of the best value you’ll find.

There is this lingering Robert Parker-ish misconception, which is changing, that “bigger is better” in wine. Okay, if you’re at the in-law’s family reunion and you want to get hammered on oak-chipped, cab-from-a-jug without being conspicuous to various teetotalling aunts, bigger is definitely better. (“Mommy, why is uncle Matt so happy?”)

But let’s say you had a surprisingly good day at work. Let’s say you managed an Excel V-Lookup in one try and found out on the way home that your significant other had snatched a spot of Pacific halibut for dinner—what bottle of wine do you want then? That is Muscadet time. It’s Tuesday wine. It’s better than you deserve and more than you paid for, which are two of the greatest things in life.

And I’m not trying to oversell Muscadet. I could imagine a successful cousin (I’m back at the reunion) who’s “into wine” might call it “little.” That’s not entirely untrue. But especially this time of year, outdoors and chilled a little colder than the wine experts tell you you should, it’s a good’n.

Matthew Mullet works in energy and also spends a lot of time writing code. In the summer, he can be found tending to a large garden and sipping chilled rosé on his porch in rural Ohio.

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