The Awesome Pairing Power of Muscadet
If there’s one food that pairs impressively with the French white wine known as Muscadet, it’s oysters. Oysters and Muscadet, one is told, go together like Mickey and Mouse. They are an inseparable duo, which is all fine and good, if you like oysters. I do not. Once upon a time I did; in fact, I had a good 20 or 30 years of liking oysters. Then oysters—raw ones, specifically—apparently decided it was in their best interest to kill me, or at the very least make me wish very strongly that I were dead. So I gave up on them.
But I still love Muscadet. Light-bodied, mineral-edged, made in France’s Loire Valley with the white Melon de Bourgogne grape, from vineyards hard up against the Atlantic, it’s one of the world’s great partners for food of all kinds.
That’s what I told Jon-David Headrick, a Nashville resident and wine importer who focuses on the Loire, when I proposed that we meet up in Atlanta and take a Muscadet-fueled tour of the South. My plan was to prove that Muscadet doesn’t just pair well with oysters but with a whole host of foods: fish, fried chicken, even tacos and barbecue. Anything short of a T-bone.
“I think that’s the best idea I’ve heard all year,” he told me.
To understand why Muscadet is so good, it helps to know a little more about what it is and where it is grown. The Muscadet appellation, mostly south of the city of Nantes on France’s Atlantic coast, is one of the largest in the country, with more than 650 growers and 23,000 acres of vines; its three sub-appellations are Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire and Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu. Though the Loire River flows along its northern border, Muscadet doesn’t really belong in the Loire, Headrick says: “It belongs in Brittany. The granitic shelf that underlies Brittany flows right down into Muscadet. The rest of the Loire is mostly on limestone.”
This, of course, is exactly the sort of conversation one hears every day in the parking lots of gas-station convenience stores in Atlanta, so why people were looking at us funny I have no idea. Possibly it was related to the fact that we were also trying to stuff 12 bottles of wine into the Styrofoam cooler we’d just purchased. Headrick slammed the trunk. “Have Muscadet, will travel,” he announced.
But granite isn’t the only thing that makes the Muscadet region different from the rest of the Loire. Proximity to the sea moderates the region’s summer temperatures, making the wines lighter and lower in alcohol than those produced in inland places, like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. And while the preeminent white grape in the rest of the Loire is Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet relies on the obscure Melon de Bourgogne.
In truth, Melon is a fairly nondescript variety. When farmed for high yields and vinified in a desultory way, it produces a blandly anonymous wine that’s refreshing when chilled, and not much else. That’s the Muscadet sold for a euro or two per glass in cafés and bistros throughout Paris. It’s the definition of forgettable—which is why, until fairly recently, Muscadet was, to some degree, forgotten.
On the other hand, Melon’s lack of personality can also be a virtue. Headrick’s analogy is that Melon is like pasta: a vehicle, in this case not for sauce but for soil expression. “Because the grape doesn’t have that much character on its own, it’s extremely transparent to the nature of where it’s grown,” he says. What that means is that really good Muscadet—the sort that small importers have been bringing to the US over the past few years—is tremendously expressive. Not powerful, but distinct.
Headrick’s wines, like the 2010 Delhommeau Clos Armand we opened in Atlanta that evening at Holeman & Finch, are excellent examples. The Clos Armand has bright citrus tones, but also a faint, appealing bitterness— the fruit together with a little bit of the peel, in a way—and a fine minerality that runs through the flavor, much the way that the granite shelf runs through the Muscadet appellation. Good with oysters? No doubt. But as chef Linton Hopkins said when he joined us, “What I’m really looking forward to is trying this with fatty, porky stuff.”
Chefs must have a broad definition of fatty, porky stuff, because our table was soon overwhelmed with Hopkins’s Southern gastropub food: country ham, lamb headcheese, veal brains in black butter, catfish with grits, Berkshire grillon (essentially nothing but pork fat, with bits of crackling suspended in it), and finally, his homage to Nashville hot chicken.
The Muscadet handled it all with aplomb, but it was startlingly good with the chicken. Hot chicken—the name refers not to its temperature but its spiciness—gets its heat from cayenne pepper, and lots of it. Hopkins’s version, which he recently started serving every night, is fried and then basted repeatedly with a lard-and-cayenne mixture. It is sweat-on-your-forehead, endorphin-rush hot. Yet Muscadet is somehow delicious with it. People tend to describe wines in terms of fruit flavors, but what made the Muscadet work so well with that onslaught of cayenne heat was its non-fruit characteristics: its refreshing, citrusy acidity; its modest alcohol level (high alcohol intensifies spiciness); even its temperature (the bottle was nicely chilled). “I think Muscadet is the wine for hot chicken,” Hopkins decided. “In fact, I’m putting that pairing on the menu tomorrow.”
Muscadet’s resilience in the face of foods that would ordinarily be wine-killers was clear at every stop Headrick and I made. It was certainly true at Tienda Mexicana Los Amigos, a Mexican grocery store in a scruffy part of Athens, Georgia. We met up there with Hugh Acheson, the chef-owner of the renowned Athens restaurant Five & Ten, among others. An all-purpose place, Tienda Mexicana Los Amigos sells everything from cowboy boots to condensed milk to piñatas, but most importantly, it sells tacos—very good tacos. “It’s definitely the kind of place that makes you think of French wine,” Acheson observed archly as we sat down.
Does Muscadet go with tacos? I’m happy to report that it does, or at least the green-appley 2011 Domaine de la Fruitière Petit M we drank at Los Amigos did. Plus, it resulted in one of my wine-geek discoveries of the year: Sur lie aging (aging on the spent yeasts from fermentation, which gives the best Muscadets more texture, along with a savory, umami-ish note) makes wine go bizarrely well with corn tortillas.
You can’t take a turn in the South with a trunk full of Muscadet and not figure out whether it goes with barbecue, because that would just be wrong. Which is why, finally, we found ourselves at Full Moon Bar-B-Que in Birmingham, Alabama. Frank Stitt, the chef-owner of the Highlands Bar and Grill, had brought us there; it’s one of his favorite barbecue joints.
Full Moon, a white cinder-block building on the edge of downtown, serves terrific pork shoulder and chicken, all smoked over the hickory wood common to Alabama barbecue. It’s a very friendly place, bringing customers of all backgrounds together through a common desire for great meat. “There’s a uniqueness to what comes off this pit,” Stitt says. “I don’t know exactly why, but I love it.”
We sat down to platters of charred “outside” meat and juicy “inside” meat and a heap of smoky chicken, our table crowded with Muscadet bottles. One of the kitchen staff called over cheerfully, “Y’all need some help with those?”
Unfortunately, the Full Moon was the scene of a rare instance of Muscadet failure. The wines were nice with the pork, and with the chicken they were spectacular, but they were obliterated by Full Moon’s chowchow, a sweet, spicy, cabbage-based relish with vinegar, sugar and lots of cayenne in it. It wasn’t really a surprise; sweetness is always a problem for high-acid whites, as it makes them taste thin and aggressively sharp.
We put the chowchow aside; there was plenty of meat left to go. “I’m a huge Loire fan, and a huge Muscadet fan,” Stitt said (he’s the wine buyer for his restaurants, as well as the chef). “I think the smoked chicken with the Muscadet is just a home run. The pairing makes the wine really sing, and the chicken taste super-good.” In particular, the wine’s flinty notes seemed to intensify the smokiness of the chicken.
I turned to Headrick. “You know, it’s not really all that far to New Orleans from here.”
“Muscadet and gumbo,” he said thoughtfully.
“Also étouffée,” I noted. “Crawfish. Think about it. How else will we know?”
Five Great Muscadets To Seek Out
2011 Domaine De La Fruitière Petit M ($13)
Fruitière’s vineyards are planted on sheer rock cliffs—gorgeous but not easy to farm. The wines they create, like this one, are exceptional.
2011 Jo Landron Domaine De La Louvetrie ($14)
The most affordable of Louvetrie’s three cuvées; its nearly electric acidity makes it incredibly crisp.
2011 Château De La Ragotière Etiquette Noir ($17)
This large estate was founded sometime in the 14th century. The lime-scented etiquette noir (black label) bottling is its top wine.
2011 Domaine Luneau-Papin Pierre De La Grange ($18)
Vines more than 45 years old help account for the salty, savory complexity of this excellent Muscadet.
2011 Michel Delhommeau Symbiose ($18)
Michel and Nathalie Delhommeau, a young husband-and-wife team, make a range of superb Muscadets. Among them is this stony, green apple–inflected bottling.