Wine pro Alex Halberstadt makes a journey from Brooklyn to the rapidly transforming city of Nantes, where he discovers sensational Muscadet, serious chefs and surprising art.

By Alex Halberstadt
Updated May 23, 2017

The most forward-thinking sommeliers in the world are fixated on the Loire Valley in France. Wine pro Alex Halberstadt makes a journey from Brooklyn to the rapidly transforming city of Nantes, where he discovers sensational Muscadet, serious chefs and surprising art.

If you are the sort of person who enjoys talking to sommeliers, call one over during your next dinner out and casually mention the Loire Valley. Consider it an experiment. Chances are you will eventually ask to be left alone, because the sommelier will loiter beside your table too long, volunteering trivia about soil types and stories about obscure, curmudgeonly producers. This vast region stretches 500 miles along the Loire River. While it’s easy to find a sommelier who’s fanatical about the Loire’s many wines, especially Vouvray (made from Chenin Blanc) and Chinon (made from Cabernet Franc), just about all of them are smitten with Muscadet (made from Melon de Bourgogne). If there’s anything the pros like more than Muscadet—a wine as bracing as a swim in a cold lake—I have not heard of it. One reason is that Muscadet enhances more types of food than just about any beverage devised by man or nature. Sure, you may want an ’89 Pomerol with your chateaubriand, but let’s be honest: The food most of us eat pairs best with wine that’s easy to drink and high in acidity. Melon De Bourgone is not about fruit flavors. Instead, it offers a surprisingly viscous texture and a stony and saline finish that winemakers say is the signature of the local soils. While that briny quality helps Muscadet pair famously well with raw oysters, few wines go better with sashimi, falafel, lentil salad, banh mi, onion tart, sauerkraut-and-mushroom pierogies, ceviche and Shanghai soup dumplings. Muscadet also happens to be an unbeatable value, underpriced even compared to the eminently affordable wines of the rest of the Loire Valley. To learn more about this beguiling wine, I booked a trip to Nantes, the capital of the Muscadet region, about a two-hour high-speed train ride from Paris. Nantes is having its own big moment as local chefs, leaders of the so-called neo-bistro movement, are transforming the city into a genuinely exciting place to eat, drink and get lost in.

Domaine de la Louvetrie
The most popular wine at Fort Defiance, the Brooklyn restaurant where I am wine director, is a Muscadet named Amphibolite; we pour it alongside cheese and charcuterie, salads, roast dorade and, of course, oysters. And though our list offers showier, more expensive bottles, most of the time I drink Amphibolite, too. It’s grown on a patch of very old vines by Jo Landron, a winemaker with a mustache so large and luxurious that it looks ready to take flight. Along with neighbor Guy Bossard, he’s a pioneer of organic farming in Muscadet country and one of the first producers there to showcase wines from specific parcels of land on his estate, Domaine de la Louvetrie. While Amphibolite is crisp and intense, Landron’s Le Fief du Breil, with its smoky, flinty aromas, is a bruiser that will drink best in a decade.

Domaine de Bellevu
Jérôme Bretaudeau of Domaine de Bellevue is a thirtysomething grizzly of a man who makes a bodacious Muscadet called Gaïa that he ages in a concrete egg as large as he is. The odd shape, he explained to me, creates a vortex that circulates the spent yeasts, lending the wine remarkable body. Bretaudeau farms all of his grapes organically and bottles almost a dozen varieties, many of which end up in Tuscan amphorae and other unusual vessels. His progressive approach epitomizes the new spirit of Muscadet, a welcome break from the recent past, when roughly 80 percent of the region’s wineries sold their product in bulk to co-ops and large merchants. While I was in Nantes, Bretaudeau invited me to join his neighbors for a tasting at his winery, in the village of Gétigné. Toddlers played among the tanks while the grown-ups huddled, glasses in hand, looking pleased and a little tipsy. A blond man in a leather jacket introduced himself as the village sheriff. When he heard I lived in New York, he reassured me that law enforcement in Gétigné was a lot easier.

Domaine de L’écu
At Domaine de l’Écu, Fred Niger Van Herck’s trio of soil-specific Muscadets tend to be round and shy in their youth—the 2011 Orthogneiss is still an infant. Each of the three tastes kindred, as though stressing a different syllable of the same word. Much of the talk in Nantes is about Niger Van Herck’s reds, a rarity in Muscadet country. Ange, his singular Pinot Noir, improbably pairs Loire Valley minerality with a ripeness that reminds me of Oregon.

Les Chants d’Avril
My favorite meal in Nantes was lunch at Les Chants d’Avril, a “bistronomic” restaurant run by Christophe and Véronique François. Their wine list is deep in well-curated Loire Valley bottles, particularly Muscadet, many from biodynamic producers. The dining room has the look of a ’60s bistro, but Christophe’s cooking is anything but bistro food. His dishes—like my main course of poached lobster, lemon paste and veal sweetbreads—are prepared with exemplary technique as well as an allegiance to deliciousness that make every course feel like a gift. Former Parisians, Christophe and Véronique also make a line of pepper blends, available at the restaurant; after a hit of Rouge Tomate, their mix of mostly Sichuan and Tasmanian peppercorns, I had the curious impression that my tongue was hallucinating. 2 rue Laënnec;

Pickles Restaurant
Pickles restaurant on a leafy side street, is a local winemaker’s favorite. Chef Dominic Quirke, an Englishman who came to the Loire via Paris, was drawn by the city’s gentler rents, ample greenery and relaxed drivers. It took time for him to find local farmers who raised heritage-breed pigs, organic butternut squash and other excellent ingredients, but he prevailed. On the night I visited, the menu name-checked lamb from Michel Hardy in Sologne, beans from Ferme du Soleil in Orvault, and octopus from Poissonnerie Corbineau in Talensac. My meal at Pickles turned out to be an education in Muscadet’s often overlooked ability to age. The wine’s remarkable acidity gives it the structure to improve over many years. Even after a decade, Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin’s majestic 2002 Excelsior was only starting to mature; the 1997 Clos des Briords from Domaine de la Pépière smelled like it had spent a decade in a granite quarry but tasted downright young. 2 rue du Marais;

Domaine Michel Brégeon
About 10 minutes after I arrived at L’Atlantide, an haute-cuisine stronghold atop an office building, I heard the chime of the elevator, and then a stooped man slowly made his way to the table. Gray-maned and leaning on a knobby cane, legendary winemaker Michel Brégeon looked like he might live inside a magical tree. He seemed amused by our surroundings—he told me he spent his days on a tractor, not eating spider crab from enormous plates. He spoke optimistically about Muscadet’s future and new designations for six of the region’s top sites, soon to appear on wine labels, which he hopes will provide stricter quality guidelines, leading to better wine. Brégeon had been bottling powerful whites since the ’70s. When I asked if he had a favorite, he gave me a wily look, pulled out an unlabeled bottle and said, “This one.” The 1995 André-Michel Brégeon Muscadet Reserve tasted as rich and persistent as vintage Champagne. We shared it in near silence, watching the houseboats on the Loire River.