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Published:  23 July, 2008

Muscadet was hit hard by the British switch to New World wines during the 1990s but, as David Williams reports, quality initiatives and a region-wide shake-up of vineyards and wineries is starting to reverse the trend

In the early 1990s, when the British love affair with French wine first started to hit the rocks, the winegrowers of the Pays Nantais on the Atlantic coast suffered more than most. The fall from favour was bewildering in its speed. In 1991, British drinkers seemed more in love with Muscadet than ever before, with exports of the generic, Svre-et-Maine and Sur-Lie guises of the seafood wine par excellence standing at an impressive 150,000hl a year. In the space of a year, however, the relationship was heading for a trial separation, if not outright divorce, as a combination of chance, complacency and, on the part of the British, infidelity set Muscadet exports plummeting to their current level of around 50,000hl a year. Mamadou Gueve, deputy director of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Nantes (CIVN), explains the chain of events. 1991 was a very difficult vintage for Muscadet, with terrible frosts. The quality went down, the volume was down, but we decided to put the prices up, which meant that UK buyers looked around for something else. The following year, in 1992, the vintage had the completely opposite profile. There was huge production, of a very average quality, but by the time we came back on the market a lot of slots had been taken by wines from the New World, which were just kicking off, and a rounder, fatter, big-fruit style had taken over.' A troubled decade on and Gueve is just one of a number of people involved in the production, buying and selling of Muscadet convinced that France's most westerly wine region has turned the corner and is now beginning to work its way back into British affections. Among other advocates are British importers and retailers, such as Jason Yapp of Loire specialists Yapp Brothers. It's early days, but we're definitely seeing a renaissance of Muscadet,' Yapp says. For the first time in a long time, it isn't being seen as social death. It's like the Corn Flakes thing, "Have you forgotten how good they can be?"' Waitrose buyer Nick Room agrees. Muscadet has turned around; it's getting better and better.' Yapp thinks that the comeback can be attributed, in part, to the fact that other wines have waned. Innovation in the New World has plateaued, and confected, overworked, fruit-driven wines are actually becoming boring to everyone. Muscadet, and the Loire in general, is very good at simplicity, which is what people are looking for again.' But there's more to the Muscadet renaissance than that. Shocked into action by plummeting sales and lost facings, les gens Nantais have been attempting to address the root causes of their problems - namely inconsistency, overproduction and, as Gueve candidly admits, poor quality - by investing in the vineyard, the winery and the marketing department. Much of this investment, indeed 50 million worth, has been coming from the French Ministry of Agriculture since the latter part of the 1990s in the form of grants for new viticultural and vinicultural equipment and training to bring local winemakers up to speed on modern techniques. A quality charter was also founded, and 60% of Nantais producers are now signatories. As proof of just how much effect these measures have had, Gueve points to the fact that the percentage of faulty or poor-quality wines now detected by the quality control teams set up with the charter and comprising a representative apiece from Onivins, the INAO, the Chamber of Agriculture and the CIVN, has dropped from more than 15% to less than 5%'. At the same time, the CIVN and, in the UK, Sopexa have led the way in a marketing drive that has attempted to get first buyers, then consumers, to trade up from generic Muscadet to more premium offerings. Much of this campaign has been focused on the Sur Lie category, and according to Gueve, it has already had a significant effect. We're really seeing signs that consumers are willing to buy Sur Lie, and to pay more money for their Muscadet in the process,' Gueve says. Already the proportion of Muscadet Sur Lie sold as a percentage of overall Muscadet sales is up to 40%. In 1996 it was 30%.' The next step in the marketing plan is to develop interest in the region's special cuves, or, haute expression wines. As Jean-Jacques Bonnet of Muscadet producer Bonnet Huet says, no one thinks of Muscadet as a wine for ageing, but an awful lot of growers have something special and serious in their cellars, something that definitely deserves the title vin de garde. When people taste these wines, it's always the same story, "I haven't tasted Muscadet for ten years, but wow, this is really good!"' It's still very early days for haute expression, however. As Yapp says, the category is still pretty recherch stuff' in the UK, and, though Malcolm Gluck recently penned a hymn of praise to aged Muscadet in his Superplonk column, the consumer at large, as Room confirms, remains convinced that Muscadet is a wine for drinking during the first year after vintage and no later. Gueve hopes that will change if and when the category becomes enshrined in law as a classification in its own right. But he concedes that this may still be a long way off. We have 120 growers looking at how to present this new level. They are willing to create it, but they are very cautious people, and when I say they are "willing", that could mean 15 years down the line!' The growers' caution extends beyond the presentation of the putative category, however. Debate continues, too, about how haute expression wines should be made. Some, such as Jean-Jacques and Rmi Bonnet at Bonnet Huet, are firm believers in the judicious use of oak in haute expression Muscadet. We started experimenting with oak in 1995,' says Jean-Jacques. You have to be careful with it, and we use 500-litre barrels, not barriques, but if you are looking to make a vin de garde it is important.' Pascal Guibal, the INAO representative for Nantes and president of the Marcel Sautejeau ngociant, which produces some 70,000 hl of wine in Muscadet each year, disagrees. I think that the use of oak runs the risk of making Muscadet identical to the rest of the world. In any case, Melon de Bourgogne, fermented Sur Lie, has enough structure and flavour without it.'

Generation terroirists For biodynamic pioneer Guy Bossard at Domaine de l'Ecu, meanwhile, haute expression (indeed, wine in general) should be all about terroir. Bossard, whose 24ha of vineyards have been farmed organically since 1972 and biodynamically since 1992, has been at the forefront of attempts by the region to persuade the world that Muscadet can produce serious wine as well as a refreshing seafood accompaniment. The whole goal of winemaking is to limit external influence and to express the terroir,' Bossard says. Understanding this is vital if we want to bring Muscadet forward. We have to concentrate on the individual parcels of land, just as they do in Burgundy, where you would never see a top producer blend their best Puligny-Montrachet with their best Chassagne Montrachet.' Bossard is as good as his word, and he produces a series of three wines made from grapes grown on specific terroirs, with each also taking its name from the terroirs: Expression de Gneiss, Orthogneiss and Granit. Claude Branger, winemaker and proprietor at Domaine La Haute Fvrie, is another terroirist, producing his 100% barrique-fermented Clos Joubert from grapes grown on a 1ha plot of 35- to 50-year-old vineyards in Monnires. We produce Clos Joubert to give us something extra,' says Branger. Basically, we can't produce red wine, and we don't make vins de pays here, so there has to be something for us to enable us to diversify, and to provide a flagship to prove what we can do.' For most Muscadet producers and importers, however, haute expression remains a pleasant diversion from their core business. But, as Majestic buyer Chris Hardy, who has yet to list an haute expression wine, says, the quality level of that core business is on the rise. Muscadet is now seen as a quality AC as opposed to just a cheap one,' he says. That's because they've improved their cellar hygiene so much. People who were using concrete vats just five years ago have moved to stainless steel, and if you look at the quality of the 2002 vintage, it's just amazing.' Running side by side with these nuts-and-bolts improvements has been, as Room says, a tendency among producers to be more attuned to the market'. This is particularly true at the larger ngociants, such as Marcel Sautejeau, which has developed a generic Muscadet with 4g of residual sugar (3.5g r/s is the current upper limit for Sur Lie and Muscadet Svre et Maine) in response to British tastes. I don't think the way forward is to imitate the Australians, but it would be stubborn not to look at new ways of making wine,' says Guibal. It's also essential to work with the supermarkets, to give them what they want, while staying true to ourselves, of course. So if the British supermarkets say they want different sugar levels to the French, then so be it.' Another group looking to work in close contact with UK buyers is Vinival, a ngociant with interests throughout the Loire. The company recently developed Bleu, a Muscadet Svre et Maine Sur Lie, which comes in blue, contemporary packaging, with Sainsbury's. Aimed, according to UK sales and marketing director Anne Burchett, at attracting a new market for Muscadet, the kind of consumer who doesn't usually enjoy the traditional packaging', Bleu did very well in its first two months,' says Burchett. It isn't an unqualified success, however. Much of the initial launch period saw the brand at an introductory promotional price of 2.99. And though Burchett says that sales of normal Muscadet weren't affected by sales of Bleu on promotion', the product has struggled to make headway at its RRP of 4.99. It's a good product because of its promotability and its ability to bring in new customers to Muscadet,' says Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, Sainsbury's French buyer. But off-promotion, it hasn't sold as many bottles as a domaine Muscadet at the same price.' In a way the success of Bleu or Sautejeau's S de Sautejean is beside the point. Their very existence is further proof of how Muscadet is now willing to listen to its enstranged partners in the UK market. And of how the region is better placed than it has been in years to win back their hearts.