The best part of exploring wines are the simple surprises you find along the way.
My most recent discovery is “Muscadet” — a French white grape that originated in Bourgogne, was destroyed by harsh winters in the early 18th century, and revived in later years in the lower Loire Valley as “Melon de Bourgogne.”
Interestingly, some Oregon and Washington State wine growers are doing well with their own versions of Melon. The bottlings are limited in quantity, however, and hard to find in these parts. Also, U.S. law prohibits the use of the name “Muscadet” so if you do see it on a shelf, it goes by Melon.
When I first saw the French version at a recent wine class I was skeptical. First, the name Muscadet carries a connotation of “muskiness” which is not a pleasing aroma or taste. Yet, once again, I learned you can’t judge a wine by its label. You have to try it.
Muscadet is a refreshing, vibrant, flavorful wine that truly elevates the palate. It displays no muskiness at all. It picks up the characteristics of its terroir — the volcanic soils and fossilized remains of the Sevre and Maine rivers — to produce intense apple, pear, citrus and sea flavors. Parisians drink this dry, medium-bodied wine with oysters and other seafood dishes. It was incredibly perfect with with broiled scallops sautéed in a white wine and lemon sauce, and lightly sprinkled with bread crumbs.
I would suggest the 2012 Chateau de Chasseloir Muscadet Sevre et Maine which costs about $13 a bottle. It is richer in mouthfeel because it is aged sur lie — a fermentation process which keeps the wine in longer contact with dead yeasts and other skin particulates that fall to the bottom of the barrel. This intensifies the wine’s flavors and aromas while giving it a creamier, smoother taste.
Muscadets are big value wines, costing between $10 and $18 a bottle for even the best French products. They should be drunk lightly chilled and within three years of purchase. They are readily available at most fine wine stores and will certainly perk up your summer entertaining.
Dave Phinney went from a political science major to winemaker nearly overnight in the 1990s, and he’s been making innovative products ever since. The flagship of his Orin Swift Cellars is “The Prisoner,” ($38-$40) a luscious blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Syrah and Grenache. Several years ago Phinney launched a new project to find the best grapes in Italy, France and Spain to produce blends for each country. The wines are definitely produced in a Napa Valley style, meaning they are fruitier than what you’d expect from the native country. Still they are appealing and a testament to Phinney’s innovative style and branding. His recent line has expanded to five bottlings, adding Argentina and California (U.S.A.) labels to the mix.
It’s a simple concept. The label for each bottle carries a single letter. For example, the Italian blend is “I.” The French blend is “F,” and so on. I purchased the Italian, French and Spanish wines soon after Christmas but only recently got to taste them. The wines cost $17.99 a bottle and are worth purchasing as a set for a dinner party.
The grape blends from the three I’ve tasted are as follows:
Italy or “I” — With Negroamaro, Nero D’Avola and Barbera dominating the blend, I thought this would be drier on the palate; instead it was rich in dark berry flavors but not overly sweet. It went well with pasta and a big meat sauce with crusty bread. A fun wine for discussion.
France or “F” — Rhone Syrah and Grenache from Roussillon power this Bordeaux-style blend which is plummy and juicy and went well with a grilled steak and baked potato. However, I’ve come to appreciate drier French reds that coat the tongue with texture and finish with complexity. I didn’t get the same sensation with this blend, although it was a decent wine.
Spain or “E” — I actually enjoyed this blend the most, because the “hot” varietal — Tempranillo — made a distinct display with the Grenache, Monastrell and Carignan mix. This has energy and passion — like running with the bulls in Pamplona — and you don’t have to worry about getting gored. Enjoy with beef tacos or a nice, fat juicy grilled burger loaded with spicy toppings.