Last Sunday I sat down with a bottle of Luneau-Papin L d'Or and a handful of seminal wine books, part of a weekly routine in which I pretend like I'm a serious person. I opened Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine and flipped to the entry on Muscadet, then opened my atlas to the map of the Loire and stuck my nose deep into the bowl of my glass.
I'm probably biased - I grew up lulled to sleep each night by the whispers of the Atlantic - but something in the smell of the ocean feels to me at once deep and immediate. There's a vastness to the smell, a bottomless quality that terrifies me and draws me in, much like the feeling of staring at the watery horizon as waves crash and roll and lap up over my toes and ankles. The oceans connect us to mysticism, spirituality, death, and the hereafter - the headiest of the heady stuff. It's a primal calling. And yet, watch a nine year old kid walk up over a dune and glimpse the ocean for the first time, and you know by the shrieks of joy that there is nothing more instantly appealing, either.
The World Atlas of Wine puts Muscadet this way: "Beside a plate of shrimps, oysters, or mussels, it becomes one of gastronomy's most convincing clichés."
Cliché because when we think of Muscadet we think most often of the cuisine it evokes, the taste of shellfish on a sanguine afternoon. Saline, calcium, fresh air. Convincing because, every so often, a cliché has the ability to shine through its scrim of overuse and light the way toward beauty.
The Oxford Companion to Wine is more conflicted. That entry on Muscadet starts by calling it "one of France's dry white commodity wines..." and ends by saying it "...can no longer be dismissed as simple, homogeneous wine." At best, this is a measured approach to the shifting sands of a river delta, a confused attempt to wrestle with two decades of radical change. At worst, this is a classist double standard, dismissing a peasantry while kowtowing to their rise in popular appeal.
Either way, Robinson is conservative here, and maybe rightly so. She is by all measures preëminent. Most wine trends have a lifespan of about a decade, and she's careful not to over-extend the moment. Muscadet could once again collapse in its own zeal, as it did in the 70s and 80s. But it makes me wonder: What will it take to remove the asterisk from beside the name? More probably these vintners will continue elevating their wines to even greater heights, as more is discovered about the distinct soil types and exposures of the Sevre et Maine.
If we look holistically at Bordeaux, for example (which lies about 200 miles south), we see huge quantities of overpriced commodity wine. And yet the conversation there focuses almost exclusively on the region's most notable examples. No coincidence that Bordeaux is largely managed by an international cohort of elites whose prices reach into the stratosphere, whereas the Pays Nantais is mostly peopled by would-be redneck farmers hocking $25 bottles of vernacular wonderment.
Maybe it's better this way. After all, the more people catch on to the truth in Muscadet, the higher the demand will be, the more expensive they'll get, the less available they will be to those of us who have loved them so long and so well. That said, it's wine. And wine is inherently convivial. Like music, wine begs to be shared.
So here goes. Muscadet is the blues. Muscadet is crawfish. Muscadet is the soul of French wine stripped of its trappings and laid bare for the world to see.
There is nothing simple about these wines, especially not the wines of Luneau-Papin. I single out LP now because a 2009 Clos des Allées was the first bottle of Muscadet ever to grab me by the throat, and because we recently got new arrivals of three of their wines — L d'Or, Clos des Allées, and Le Grange.
Yes, they evoke the sea. And yes, absolutely, talking about oysters when we talk about Muscadet is decidedly cliché. And yet, when we speak of the blues do we not speak of longing? When we consider the crawfish do we not consider the bayou?
The Loire drains France like a sink pipe into the Atlantic. And like all drain-dwelling peoples, the folks of Pays Nantais have found life in the harshest aspects of their coastal plain. No exaggeration, L d'Or would be my desert island wine. Right alongside my desert island food and my desert island record. And if days spent on that desert island mean listening to the howl of the Wolf and sucking at the heads of arthropods and drinking it all down with the bright brine of the coastal Atlantic, then count me in for a month of Sundays. All joking aside. I hope to see you there.
photo: Tyler D. Zwiep