Château du Cléray Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie 2004
France seems filled with dedicated winemakers who resurrect forgotten grapes and, perhaps a
more difficult task, elevate “forgettable” wines, the apparent mission of Jean-Ernest Sauvion
of Chateau du Cléray, in the Sèvre et Maine area of the pays Nantais in the western
To start to understand the wine in question, it is important to distinguish it from sound-alikes all over the wine world; muscadelle, muscadina, muscardin, muscadine, the dozen or so muscats, muscatel, the many moscatels and moscatos—many of them world-class grapes—are something else. Our Muscadet isn't even a grape; it is the name of the wine. The white grape is called Melon de Bourgogne. As the name suggests, it originated in Burgundy, where it is now only rarely seen; the grape spread across France in the Middle Ages to survive and thrive in the Nantais, its only significant region of cultivation today. (It neither looks like, nor tastes like, a melon, by the way.)
Muscadet was long viewed as a quaffable quantity wine, with a simple tangy fruitiness and light alcohol (by law 12% maximum), a good example of a wine that had been diminished by overproduction and downright sloppy handling. It has a reputation at least as an excellent accompaniment to the seafood and shellfish—particularly oysters—of its Atlantic-facing region. Today's best Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines are left to gain complexity sur lie (on the spent yeast and grape skins of the fermentation process, called “lees” in English); they are bottled right off the lees no earlier than the spring after harvest, though many producers age their wines on the lees much longer.
The $13 wine I sampled is dry, the color of pale straw, with the light fizz common in the
variety, a lively acidity and notes of peach, citrus, green apple, and pineapple all conveyed on
a mineral (flint and chalk) backbone. The minerality is by no means over-serious; it rather
complements the straightforward fruit and acidity by giving it another element. Here is proof
that a fun, easy-to-drink wine is only enhanced by quality winemaking. This well-made wine
pokes its nose into the realm of complexity without abandoning its sense of fun. Salt air (I
live within its reach) adds an element. What I lack are the oysters right off the boat.
Wine is infinitely variable, a subject that only becomes larger when you try to exhaust it.
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman