Mention the grape variety Melon de Bourgogne and you’ll likely see people scratching their heads as they try to extract a faint recollection of what that is. Mention its homeland region of Muscadet and you’ll see the comfort of a known quantity. But how known is it?
For reasons fair enough, Muscadet’s reputation descended into the conjuring of large-volume, machine-harvested, conventionally farmed, and simple high-acid whites to throw down with seafood and a side of no second thought. However, a special few have risen atop the many, clutching in their hands an array of mineral, characterful and site-expressive wines unearthed by deep thinking, hard work and perseverance. Small yields, hand-harvesting, organic and biodynamic farming and soil biodiversity are just a few of the factors proving the potential for great heights from Melon de Bourgogne.
As the name suggests, Melon de Bourgogne (or ‘Melon’ for short) is a grape variety that originated in Burgundy but was thought to be overproductive and viticulturally inferior by the Dukes of Burgundy, who ordered its removal in the early 18th century. From there, this cross between pinot blanc and gouais blanc had a brief sojourn in Anjou in the middle of the Loire Valley, where winemakers were initially attracted to its frost-resistant nature. However, there it suffered the same fate, eventually being discarded to make way for more suitable varieties.
Its journey may have ended there, if not for having caught the attention of Dutch distillers downstream in Nantes, at the Loire Valley’s Atlantic western end, who were looking for frost-resistant, neutral, hardy and vigorous grapes from which to make eau de vie. The port of Nantes was geographically convenient for the Dutch, who used it to export brandy back to Holland. They planted Melon in the vineyards around Nantes and noted its success in the cooler Atlantic climate.
Although this helped kickstart the grape’s rise, it was extreme adversity that truly propelled it. In 1709, Europe experienced its worst recorded winter in history. Nantes experienced barrels bursting in cellars, the freezing of coastal waters, and the mass destruction of vineyards. The predominantly red grape vines were wiped out, with only Melon de Bourgogne and one other variety surviving. Having endured such an event, Melon was quickly planted in replacement, turning Nantes from a region of red wine to a region of white.
Melon revelled in its sea change and aside from a small footprint in North America (where it was initially mistaken for pinot blanc), hasn’t seen success outside its maritime home ever since. Over two centuries after the grape’s arrival, the AOC of Muscadet was decreed in 1937 and now, the grape variety and the appellation are so inextricable that ‘Muscadet’ is often used as a name for both. Muscadet AOC’s subregional appellations are Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire, Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu, and Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, with the latter responsible for the most notable examples, and for around 80% of Muscadet produced.
Melon typically produces dry, light-bodied, crisp and high acid wines showing aromas and flavours of lemon, lime, green apple, pear, minerality and salinity. As such, it’s considered a great match for seafood dishes such as oysters, scallops, or moules-frites (a Nantes favourite), and foods with vinaigrettes and other high acid dressings. To add depth and complexity, winemakers sometimes employ the use of ‘sur lie’ (which translates to ‘on lees’) – a process where the wines are aged in contact with the dead yeast cells (lees) that are a by-product of alcoholic fermentation. This builds creaminess, yeastiness and texture into these otherwise light-bodied wines, adding another dimension and level of detail.
So, who are the few bucking Muscadet’s trend? Jo Landron has led the charge, using the likes of organic/biodynamic practices, low yields and biodiversity to create complex, mineral and detailed wines of place. Landron bottles the vineyards, so to speak, to the point that he’s named one cuvée ‘Amphibolite’ after the dominant soil type from which it’s grown. With trailblazing icons such as Landron (his famous handlebar moustache only serving the cause) comes confidence and permission for others to follow in kind. Domaine Luneau-Papin, Domaine de la Pépière, Domaines Vinet and Vincent Caillé are just a few of the producers picking up the story.
With the prices of noble whites continuing to soar, keeping an eye on the low-born white varieties going from strength to strength. High yielding, lean and simple? There’s more to Melon than you might drink.
2016 Jo Landron Le Fief du Breil Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Loire Valley, France, A$60
Aromas of oyster shell, sea spray and crushed rock are filled out with lemon sorbet, lemon balm, lime cordial and subtle honey. Smokey minerals, grilled lemon, thyme and leesy sourdough notes develop with air and temperature adding a savoury complexity. A tensile and energetic palate shows Meyer lemon, preserved lemon, and salty minerals supported by a slightly oily texture and perfectly interwoven acidity bringing gentle but significant length and poise.
2019 Domaine Vinet Domaine de la Quilla Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Loire Valley, France, A$30
Opens with green apple, white florals, wet stone, fresh lime juice and nashi pear aromas before unfurling with leesy notes of cream and pastry dough. The palate is medium bodied with slippery texture and a melding of green apple and sour cream leading to pear, lemon thyme and preserved lemon. Rapier-like acidity and astringent phenolics assert themselves on the fruit and weight, providing a puckery, apply and linear frame for a long close.
2017 Domaine Luneau-Papin Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Terre de Pierre, Loire Valley, France, A$34
Oxidative and aldehydic aromas of grilled walnuts, cream cheese, whipped cream, spiced pear, slithered almonds and fresh dough leap out of the glass. The palate is broad and full, with bruised apple, buttered toast, ripe pear, almond and fig. Grippy and confident, with a doughy mouth perfume that permeates through the finish.
2019 Vincent Caillé Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Mouton Noir, Loire Valley, France, A$36
Dainty and demure to start, with gentle white florals, bath soaps and potpourri gradually fleshed out by melon, makrut lime, underripe pear, green apple and almond. Time in the glass yields fresh stony minerality and sea spray lift. The palate brings a burst of fruit notes with green apple, melon and lemon supported by a soft, creamy, fleshy texture and a gentle but persistent acid line carrying an attractive bitter green almond close.