The Loire Valley Part One: Serious Muscadet at Domaine Chéreau Carré
Pleasant, straightforward Muscadet, the perfect, inexpensive, unfussy choice for beach picnics, oysters, and easy drinking. With its lemony fruit, bright acidity and kissed-by-the-sea salinity, Muscadet pairs seamlessly with briny seafood and light salads. But the praise usually stops there, or rather its main asset makes it susceptible to easy criticism. Muscadet is generally considered to be somewhat pedestrian if not second rate in its simplicity. This reputation is due, in large part, to the fact that big-scale producers have focused on quantity over quality, often picking grapes too early and vinifying them carelessly, which can result in flavorless, banal wines with nothing more than screamingly high acidity. Moreover, Muscadet is sometimes unfairly perceived as soulless wine because the Pays Nantais is home to much of France's industrial agriculture and is dotted with large warehouses and processing plants. However, once you arrive in Sèvre-et-Maine, the heart of Muscadet, at the confluence of the Sèvre and Maine rivers, vines dominate the pastoral landscape, interrupted only by charming hamlets of centuries-old houses and small valleys carved out of the schist. And while it is true that if the wind is just right you can smell the butter from the LU biscuit factory off in the distance, the breeze mainly carries in the salt air from the Atlantic. Domaine Chéreau Carré is a smaller estate that is owned and operated by the Chéreau family, dating back to the 15th century. Of the old castle, only one tower remains; the original structure was destroyed during the Revolution. Yet the estate retains a certain sleepy stateliness that was immediately apparent as we drove up on a hot August afternoon. We were warmly greeted by owner and winemaker, Bernard Chéreau, and his daughter Louise.
Before lunch, Bernard took us on a tour of the vineyards. Muscadet is made solely from the white Melon de Bourgogne grape which was brought to the area centuries ago by Burgundian monks. Despite the few small remaining plots in Burgundy and those in a couple of other places like Oregon, the grape is concentrated mostly in Pays Nantais (providing a truly unique, regional wine). He took us to a plot of 100 year old vines, which, despite producing less than their younger counterparts, are highly prized because their fruit is considered to be of better quality and richer in concentration. It was incredible to walk amongst these vines, with their gnarled trunks, knowing they have been producing fruit each year for generations. It was also difficult to accept that these dignified old vines couldn't produce something more interesting than what is generally expected of Melon! As we walked, Bernard told us about his father who started the Domaine in the 1950's with the aim of making serious, age-worthy Muscadet. At the time people thought he was crazy, What? There is no such thing as serious Muscadet! It doesn't make sense, can't be done! But he persevered and proved them wrong. Today, Bernard continues to apply this philosophy and to implement the practices started by his father, in an effort to achieve a complexity that many thought impossible.
In addition to cultivating large plots of old vines, Bernard is careful to start the "vendage," or harvest, at optimal ripeness, encouraging flavor development while still retaining enough acidity and keeping potential alcohol levels in check. He then ages his wines "sur lie," or on the lees, as is the common practice with Muscadet (and a legally regulated label term), but he does so for longer than most. Yeasts are responsible for fermentation, converting the sugar in grapes to alcohol to produce wine. When these yeast cells die, they are called "lees." If the wine remains in contact with these lees for a certain amount of time it is called "sur lie" aging. This imparts a rich, yeasty character to the wine. For additional richness, Bernard will sometimes stir these lees, a process called "bâtonnage." For aging, Bernard uses mostly stainless steel or cement tanks. His Château du Chasseloir St. Fiacre Cuvée, however, is aged in oak for added depth and complexity.
In the vineyard with Bernard.
100 year old Melon de Bourgogne vines.
Louise taking us through the cellar.
Glass bottom barrel showing lees accumulation
After the tour of the vineyards and the underground cellar, Bernard and Louise invited us to an amazing (and simple and straightforward) lunch of local oysters and langoustines followed by cheeses and desserts, all paired with a line up of their wines:
2014 Château l'Oiselinière de la Ramée Sur Lie
2010 Comte Leloup du Château de Chasseloir Cuvée des Ceps Centenaires
2009 Le Clos du Château l'Oiselinière
2012 Château de Chasseloir de St. Fiacre
The 2014 was light and bright with tart grapefruit, lime pith, sea shell minerality and crisp acidity.
The 2010 Comte Leloup is a cuvée made from 100 year old vines and ages for 10 to 12 months sur lie. It was lush and concentrated with exceptional balance and levitated notes of ripe citrus, honeydew, lemon flowers, wet earth, saline, and a long finish.
The 2009 Le Clos was aged sur lie for 31 months in cement tanks. It showed an elegant creamy roundness, balanced by firm minerality and fleeting notes of herbs, honey, and chalk.
The 2012 Château de Chasseloir de St. Fiacre was the most voluptuous wine, having spent time in oak. While toasty oak notes were obvious, they melded seamlessly with subtle hints of ripe lemon, pink grapefruit, white flowers, white mushrooms, and tropical melon.
As we tasted, I was struck by the delicate balance that Bernard has achieved in his wine. Never did his efforts feel forced, trying to turn Muscadet into something that it isn't. In harvesting at just the right time and aging his wines just so, he has managed to imbue a complexity, a depth to each of his wines that is in perfect harmony with the "traditional" heart of Muscadet, its fresh simplicity.
Bernard's wines can be paired with a wide range of food, although don't forgo the classic pairing with oysters -- It is a delight! Try his wines with a range of seafood including sushi, mussels or white fish au beurre blanc. Richer wines can pair with chicken in a light mushroom sauce or pork loin stuffed with lemon and prosciutto.
In Los Angeles, Domaine Chéreau Carré is distributed by DeMaison Selections. The wines are tremendous values and are available at K&L Hollywood, 1400 Vine Street. More information about Domaine Chéreau Carré can be found at their website: http://chereau-carre.fr/
Other Muscadet producers that I enjoy include Domaine Louis Métaireau Grand Mouton, Domaine de la Pépière, and Domaine Luneau-Papin.
Bacchus enjoying some Muscadet in the cellar.