Melon de Bourgogne and its Avatar Muscadet

Melon de Bourgogne, Muscadet

Melon de Bourgogne is an ancient Burgundy variety that fell out of favor in its homeland but found a deserving new home in the neighboring Loire Valley. Loire winemakers produce pure varietal wine from Melon de Bourgogne, known as Muscadet. Under this name, the grape is well-known among modern wine lovers.

Melon de Bourgogne, often shortened to just Melon, is a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. The latter variety, now almost extinct, is an ancestor of many popular grape varieties, including Chardonnay and Aligoté. In Burgundy, Melon de Bourgogne has been cultivated since ancient times, almost dating back to the Roman era; the first written mentions of it date to the 13th century.

Melon de Bourgogne is a cold-resistant variety. It blooms very early, which allows it the possibility to bloom a second time after a spring frost. It is a late-ripening grape, enabling it to absorb all the warmth the French north can provide. Additionally, it is resistant to mold, one of the plagues of cold climates. Thus, the variety is perfectly adapted to the cold climate of Burgundy.

Due to its naturally high acidity, Melon de Bourgogne produces very dry, refreshing, and neutral wine. It is not very aromatic, so making a good wine from this variety requires care and effort. The climate is critical — hot weather can destroy all aromas. Additionally, the grapes should be harvested at a cool temperature, the same applies to the fermentation process. Good Melon de Bourgogne has a light aroma of apple and citrus with notes of pepper, and a hint of saltiness.

In the late 14th century, Duke Philip II the Bold of Burgundy sought to improve the quality of Burgundy’s vineyards by favoring more promising varieties. He chased Gamay out of Burgundy, replacing it with Pinot Noir, and in 1367 also prohibited the planting of Melon de Bourgogne, favoring Chardonnay. While he condemned Gamay as unsuitable for human consumption, he characterized Melon de Bourgogne as simply not being good enough.

Then, the neighboring Loire Valley saved Melon de Bourgogne by offering it its vineyards. The Loire is a cold vinicultural region that often experiences spring frosts. Sometimes, severe winters occur, harmful to grapevines. One such winter in 1709 destroyed most of the Loire’s vineyards. Meanwhile, Dutch négociants were actively seeking places to grow grapes suitable for brandy production. For brandy, the best wines should have high acidity and a neutral taste. Melon de Bourgogne, with its natural high acidity and low aromatic profile, fit the requirements perfectly. The Dutch also sought locations near seasides because ships were main mean of transportation at that time. The Loire, with its port city of Nantes on the Loire River, just 50 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, was ideal for their needs. Consequently, the Dutch introduced Melon de Bourgogne to the Loire Valley.

Thus, Melon de Bourgogne, saved from the axe of the Duke of Burgundy, found a new home in the frost-ravaged vineyards of the Loire Valley and took on the name of Muscadet. Don’t be confused by the similar names — Muscadet and Muscat are completely different varieties, with no relation, including in taste.

Before discussing the fate of Melon de Bourgogne in its new homeland, let’s return to Burgundy. Despite the decree of the Duke of Burgundy, Melon de Bourgogne has persisted there, though its vineyards cover only a couple of hectares. About half of these are located in the Côte de Beaune, with the rest along the Ionna River in the Tannay region. Since Melon de Bourgogne is not a permitted variety in Burgundy, it cannot be classified under the AOC category; all wine from Melon de Bourgogne falls under the IGP category.

Tannay is in North Burgundy, a region with chalk-rich soil that imparts high minerality and a certain coldness and austerity to the wine.

This is exactly the case of Coteaux de Tannay. About Melon de Bourgogne from Domaine J.M. Perdikoupris, Côteaux de Tannay you can find here.

To try Burgundian Melon de Bourgogne, you need to visit Burgundy. And I must say, that’s not a bad idea at all. By the way, you can also join me on a wine tour to other regions of France, not just to Burgundy. You can find more details here.

Now let’s talk about wines from Melon de Bourgogne that are available worldwide.

With the help of the Dutch, who were looking for a good base for brandy production near sea transportation routes, Melon de Bourgogne gained a dominant position in western Loire, particularly in the Nantes region. West Loire was a favored destination for Parisians on seaside vacations, and the cold, crisp, very dry Muscadet became an iconic wine to accompany seafood. It was said that oysters are born to be enjoyed with a good glass of Muscadet. Along with North Burgundy, the Loire Valley was a primary supplier of wine to Paris, and Parisians preferred Muscadet with their fish dishes. Muscadet became popular in the French market and internationally as well.

However, in the 20th century, the popularity of Muscadet waned. Melon de Bourgogne has a relatively simple taste, and the wine easily loses its aroma if not produced with proper care.

To address this, Loire’s winemakers introduced different approaches to saturate and enrich the wine’s taste.

First of all, they started using maturation on lees (sur lie) for Muscadet. Lees is the sediment formed from dead yeast. By the end of fermentation, yeast has transformed all the sugar into ethanol, and then perishes due to starvation, forming a sediment. Typically, wine is removed from this sediment immediately. However, sometimes, to give the wine a more complex taste, it remains on the lees for a period. During maturation on lees, the dead yeast undergo autolysis, breaking down and releasing various molecules into the wine, such as proteins, peptides, polysaccharides, lipids, and more. The longer the wine remains on the lees, the more of these different molecules transfer into the solution. All these molecules give the wine aromas associated with baking and nuts, and make the taste more saturated, soft, and creamy.

Of course, maturation on lees is not exclusive to Loire winemakers for Muscadet preparation. Maturation on lees after secondary fermentation is a crucial step in producing sparkling wines by the Traditional Method, most notably Champagne. For sparkling wines, maturation on lees is essential not only for developing additional specific flavors but also for forming quality bubbles. About the technology of sparkling wine production and the role of lees you can read here.

Maturation on lees is also employed in producing some still wines. For instance, it is popular among winemakers working with Chardonnay.

Still and all, only Loire winemakers have turned this technique into a defining feature, proudly displaying the term “sur lie” not only on the label but sometimes even on the bottle itself. In the past, any Loire winemaker could mention “sur lie” on the label regardless of how long the wine actually spent on the lees. However, a 1994 law formalized regulations about this. Now, Loire Muscadet can only be marked as “sur lie” if it has maturated the entire winter on the lees and is removed from the sediment no earlier than the end of the third week of March following the harvest. Many winemakers keep the wine on the lees even longer, up to October or November, enhancing the wine’s body, roundness, and softness. The wine must also be bottled directly from its lees without any racking or filtration.

The law does not specify the type of vessels that can be used for lees maturation, so winemakers can use stainless steel vats or oak barrels of any size. Most of Muscadet producers today prefer standard-sized barrels made from neutral oak. While oak can impart tannins to the wine, the lees act as a buffer between the oak and the wine, preventing the wine from becoming too tannic.

Lees maturation also increases a wine’s aging potential. Normally, Melon de Bourgogne produces wine that should be consumed young, within the first three years. However, lees maturation can extend its aging potential to up to five years, and sometimes even ten years.

By the way, returning to Melon de Bourgogne from other regions, Burgundy, for example. There are no marks “sur lie” on their bottles, but it doesn’t mean that winemakers of Burgundy or Oregon don’t use lees maturation. They do. For example, Melon de Bourgogne from Domaine J.M. Perdikoupris was matured on lees and long enough, according to its taste. However, only wigmakers of Loire Valley use the words “sur lie” on the labels of their Muscadet.

In addition to lees maturation, some winemakers also use skin contact prior to fermentation. Typically, for white wine production, the juice is separated from the skins immediately after the grapes are crushed. However, in some cases, to allow the wine to pick up more aromas from the skins, the juice is kept with the skins for a very short time (several hours) and at a cold temperature to prevent tannin extraction into the delicate white wine.

A portion of Loire’s Muscadet is made in the vins de primeur style, similar to Beaujolais nouveau. This is a very young wine that is released in the harvest year, on the third Thursday of November.

By the time of bottling, Muscadet can retain some CO2, which imparts a slight fizziness, enhancing its sense of freshness.

Let’s briefly discuss the appellations that produce Muscadet. There are four of them. The most common is Muscadet AC, whose wines cannot bear the “sur lie” marking.

There are three higher-level appellations: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire, and Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu. All three can produce “sur lie” wines.

Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu, the youngest among them, received AOC status in 1994 (the others obtained AOC status in 1936-37). The vineyards of this appellation benefit from the unique terroir of the Lac de Grandlieu banks, and its best wines have a floral aroma and high minerality.

The largest and most notable is Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine. The soil here is primarily granite and schist. Nearly half of the wines from this appellation are “sur lie.” The best wines from this area are medium-bodied, with good texture and minerality, balanced acidity, and a fruity aroma.

That’s about it for the global geography of Melon de Bourgogne. Most of this grape is grown in the Loire Valley, a bit in its original home of Burgundy, and a small amount in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, USA (under the shortened name “Melon”).

Now, let’s talk about the practical side. Most wines made from Melon de Bourgogne are best enjoyed within their first three years, although some have the potential to age for up to five years or more. It is best to serve them chilled to 9-11°C (48-52°F).

This wine is an ideal accompaniment to seafood — oysters, shrimp, lobster, and fatty fish. Its good acidity refreshes the palate, and its low aromatic profile ensures it doesn’t dominate the taste of the food.

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