Sips: Le Bernardin and Muscadet

Le Bernardin and Muscadet might seem to some like a food and wine oxymoron, pairing the cuisine of the famed New York restaurant with the modest, inexpensive wine from the western end of France’s Loire Valley. After all, isn’t Muscadet, made from the melon de Bourgogne grape, a fresh and slightly briny young wine that is in its element with a dozen oysters on the half shell? Or as a wash-down wine for fried clams served in a basket on a red and white checked tablecloth? Well, yes and yes, but the point of the dinner convened for a group of wine muscadet 1writers last week (we sampled 11 wines, with as many glasses in front of each of us) was to reinforce the fact that Muscadet can and should be about much more than just the simplest of food pairings. This is something that I and others who have studied the wines have understood for some time, appreciating them as terroir-driven wines that express the range of soils in which the grapes are grown. And yet, the producers and promoters of Muscadet have had a hard time moving it more broadly beyond its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of white wine.

At a big tasting event I attended several months ago in the Loire Valley, for example, a prominent producer told me of people who get excited about the complexity and depth that one can taste in Muscadet, only to laugh dismissively when told of the prices (Muscadets tend to be in the $12 to $20 range). According to this line of reasoning, wines of such dimension need to be priced higher to be taken seriously. That’s okay. The rest of us will enjoy them at their humble tariffs.

At our dinner last week, the wines were separated into three groups: young and fresh wines from 2009 and 2008; those with a few years or so of bottle age, and a few that go back 15 to more than 30 years. The young wines were paired superbly with a first course of smoked yellowfin tuna “prosciutto” served with crunchy Japanese pickled vegetables, and some of the slightly older wines, which tend to take on a more creamy quality, matched well with the main course of baked wild striped bass in a delicious light Périgord (truffle and wine) sauce.  Here are my favorites:

Domaine l’Aujardière 2008 Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu sur Lie, $13. Chablis-like with lots of minerals and a honey note.

Michel Delhommeau 2009 Cuvée St. Vincent Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, $13. Delicious apricot, tropical fruit, pineapple and mineral notes.

Domaine de la Louvetrie 2008 Amphibolite Nature Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, $16. Young and austere with a pear note and beautiful balance. Organically and biodynamically farmed.

Claude Branger 2007 Les Gils de Gras Mouton Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie. Spicy with a green apple note and lots of creaminess; still quite young.

Domaine Luneau-Papin 1995 L d’Or Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, $30.  Beautiful fruit and mineral mix; rich yet still refreshing.

Domaines Ollivier Frères 1986 Domaine de la Grenaudière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie. Probably the most interesting wine of the evening with exotic spices, a good deal of creaminess and still-vibrant fruit. Alas, it’s no longer available but demonstrates the wonderful aging potential of some Muscadets.

And by the way, did I mention that we enjoyed one of Pascal Guilbaud’s Muscadets with oysters? And that the pairing was nothing less than superb?

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