Fun To Say, Fun To Drink: Muscadet

Wines from the vineyards near the river city of Nantes (pictured) are exactly what you need this summer.

Wines from the vineyards near the river city of Nantes (pictured) are exactly what you need this summer.

It's fun to drink

And it's fun to say.

It comes from France.

It's Muscadet [moose-cah-day]!

You know that I am an unabashed fan of wines from the Loire Valley of France, and with the heat returning to the northeast, I love them even more. There are so many dry, zesty white wines and fresh, lively red wines to choose from. However, today we focus on a white wine from the city of Nantes in the western Loire whose low alcohol, light body, and refreshingly simple flavor is perfect for this time of year. Additionally, it was a wine that my two older sons absolutely loved to say when they overheard me discussing my wine studies; it's clearly fun to say for kids, but they have over a decade to go before it can be fun to drink.

Muscadet is one of the unique protected production areas in France in that it does not refer to a grape variety or a geographic region. Wines made with this name are made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape (often shorted to Melon), whose tendency toward neutral flavors was ideal base material for Dutch traders to turn into brandy. This, along with the deep freeze of 1709, led to an increase in plantings of Melon. The name "Muscadet" is believed to have come from the supposed "musky" character that Melon displayed. Perhaps earlier clones of the variety showed this funk, but in today's examples there is no muskiness to be found.

Muscadet wine is produced from an area of roughly 32,000 acres, a significant swath of land for producing one type of wine, but still pales in comparison to Bordeaux's nearly 300,000 acres. Within the boundaries of the Muscadet zone, there are more specific terroirs and names that may be appended to the name of Muscadet on a label if the wine follows the production rules.

Map of the Muscadet production zones. Chéreau Carré is an important producer of Muscadet wines Image credit:  DeMaison Selections

Map of the Muscadet production zones. Chéreau Carré is an important producer of Muscadet wines Image credit: DeMaison Selections

Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine: this is the one we see the most often on the shelves; it is often the richest and most complex of all three sub-zones.

Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire: the northernmost region, where vintage variations are noticed the most out of the three sub-zones. Coteaux de la Loire tends to be the highest in acidity of the three sub-zones.

Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu: this didn't receive its own sub-zone until 1996, so prior to this vineyards were producing basic Muscadet. Soils are lighter and sandier, leading to delicate, light-bodied wines with floral aromatics.

In addition, these three sub-zones can all add "sur Lie" if they use a specific winemaking technique. In order to impart a creamier texture and give Muscadet a fuller body, fermented wines will sit in a tank or vat with the spent yeast cells (called the lees) from fermentation. The cellar hands need to stir the lees, which release sugars and proteins into the wine, leading to a richer texture. Temperature needs to be kept under control and lees need to be stirred, otherwise spoilage can occur in the wine. Additionally, if lees aging goes for more than a twelve months, it can lead to "off" flavors, such as rotten eggs in the wine (Yum!), unless serious care is taken in the cellar.

Muscadet wines are natural matches for seafood. Sea scallops and raw oysters are both phenomenal with Muscadet, as are mussels cooked in white wine with garlic and herbs. Keep the seafood preparations simple,and you will be in business. The other good news about Muscadet is that it does not break the bank, even on the higher end of the price spectrum. I have four wines for you to try, all of which show a progression from delicate and easy-drinking to assertive and complex.

Château de La Chesnaie Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($12): Briny and citrusy, this is an easy way to get yourself introduced to what everyday Muscadet is all about.

Château l'Oiselinière de la Ramée Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($17): More defined citrus fruits, such as grapefruit and lemon zest, are complemented by a subtle floral note A softer texture than the Chesnaie, but still has some bracing acidity to keep the wine from feeling flat in your mouth.

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Les Gras Moutons ($23): Vines are 20-60 years old, so fruit concentration begins to increase when compared to the previous two wines. The range of citrus fruits show up in this wine, but now stones and earth start to show. The texture is richer than the two as well, and this is where you begin to see what happens when Melon is grown in more specific vineyard areas with organic farming techniques.

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Clisson ($28): Organically farmed, "Clisson" is the first recognized "cru", or great growth of Muscadet. Pépière stretches the limits of lees aging by going to nearly two years on the spent yeast cells. Vines ages are anywhere from 50 to 110 years old, leading to very concentrated flavors. White peaches, apples, brioche bread, and a smoky/stony character make this one of the more complex Muscadet examples out there. I highly encourage you to try this wine if you can find it!



Fun To Say, Fun To Drink: Blaufränkisch

The fruity and complex Blaufränkisch, a.k.a. "Lemberger" above. Not the stinky cheese below.

The fruity and complex Blaufränkisch, a.k.a. "Lemberger" above. Not the stinky cheese below.

The latest installment of Fun To Say, Fun To Drink gives you something I have been missing since I started: a red wine! Even better, we get to make a deeper dive into Austria; the last time we drank this country up was back in April when we talked about how awesome Grüner Veltliner is. The goal with this segment is, as always, to get you to step outside of your comfort zone with something that is delicious, but maybe you were hesitant to plunk down the cash for it. Besides, when isn't it fun to check out a grape with umlauts in its name?

Let's talk about Blaufränkisch (blau-FRANK-ish). It is a red wine grape that was originally discovered in Germany back in the 1700s in the village of Limberg. This means the original name of this grape was Limberger, and is still sometimes referred to as "Lemberger" when grown in the United States. My guess is that the marketing departments of the wine world were thrilled to be able to call this grape Blaufränkisch, rather than have it associated with the stinky soft cheese (even though the wine actually predates the cheese).

Blaufränkisch (translating to "blue grape from France" from German) performs better in the warmer, more southerly region of Burgenland when compared to the northern regions like Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal that tend to be cooler and better suited for Grüner Veltliner and Riesling. Blaufränkisch has deep color and substantial (but not overpowering) tannin. There is also a solid backbone of acidity to balance the tannins, and Blaufränkisch has a raspberry and cherry fruit flavor with a touch of peppery spice. The red fruit can creep into black fruit when the vines are planted on prime sites.

Not too many other countries are working with this grape variety, but Steele Wines' Shooting Star "Blue Franc" from Washington is one try for about $16. This wine shows itself with blueberry, fresh blackberry, and violets with a vanilla/baking spice finish.

It's difficult to try and map the flavor profile to a more familiar grape. I would say it can express itself similarly to an Old World Pinot Noir, but the color of Blaufränkisch is deeper. It has the acid and tannin of Syrah, but Syrah's flavors are almost exclusively "black" fruit (blackberry, black cherry). 

Really what you need to do is just get your hands on one of the three wines below (or the Shooting Star above) and go to town. 

Heinrich Burgenland Blaufränkisch ($19): Plenty of cherry fruit on the nose and palate. A little herbaceous and plenty of spiciness (think ground red pepper) on the finish. This would be a fun one to try with baby back ribs. 

Walter Glatzer Carnuntum Blaufränkisch ($19): Rosemary and black pepper complement the red and black fruit combination. Some oak aging in this one, so a little toastiness on the finish.

Prieler Blaufränkisch Johanneshohe ($25): Blackberry on the nose, but a raspberry fruit flavor on the palate. Spicy with noticeable tannins that are mellowed with some maturation in large neutral oak barrels, giving the wine a plush texture on your palate.


Fun To Say, Fun To Drink: Albariño

Time to get to know another grape, people! I realize I have been sticking to white wines in this lately, but it's what I have been tasting lately and the wines have been delicious. You just need to know about them.

I don't know if the sentiment has been as heavy as it has a few years ago, but there is a faction of wine drinkers who are in the ABC Club...Anything But Chardonnay. As always, I will be honest with you...I couldn't stand Chardonnay in my early wine-drinking days. My first encounter was an inexpensive California Chardonnay that was full-bodied, low in acid, and so over-oaked it was like sucking on a Werther's Original Hard Candy. No thanks...I became an ABC drinker.

Al Barino, used car salesman. 

Al Barino, used car salesman. 

Of course, over time I learned to get over this and I have styles of Chardonnay I enjoy, but there are still plenty of ABC drinkers out there. One alternative that has often been recommended for this crowd of Chardonnay-haters is Albariño (ahl-bah-REE-nyoh...not "Al Barino", who sounds like a dude trying to sell you a clunky used car). What is it about this grape that makes writers sing its praises to ABC drinkers, and why do ABC drinkers seem to enjoy it?

Albariño: the tasty Spanish white grape. Not a used car salesman.

Albariño: the tasty Spanish white grape. Not a used car salesman.

Albariño is a variety native to the Iberian Peninsula, though Spain's Galicia region is responsible for the majority of worldwide production. This is known as "Green Spain," where rainfall is higher here than any other Spanish wine zone. Albariño evolved to have thick skins to resist the potential for rotting grapes, so resulting wines can have some texture and body to it along the lines of Chardonnay. Its aromas are also more assertive than Chardonnay's, showcasing a citrus and floral component along with peaches and apricots that are more reminiscent of a dry Riesling. In fact, there is a theory that Albariño is indeed a clone of Riesling, whose name is taken from Alba (white) and Riño (from the Rhine, a major German river).

Your subzones of Rías Baixas. Image credit:  Rías Baixas Wines.

Your subzones of Rías Baixas. Image credit: Rías Baixas Wines.

When Albariño was awarded DO status (a protected demonination of origin), Spanish law says you can't name a DO after a grape variety, so you find Albariño made under the name "Rías Baixas," a specific zone within the Galicia region. Within Rías Baixas, distinct "terroirs" emerged, where Albariño shows itself differently in these micro-regions within Rías Baixas. For instance, Val do Salnés is cool and wet, so a mineral and herbaceous flavor may result. Condado do Tea gets hot during the growing season, leading to fuller, softer, tropical fruit-flavored wines.

Additionally, note that Albariño is also called Alvarinho in Portugal, most notably in the wines of Vinho Verde, just over the Minho River (pictured above on the map). The Portuguese version is definitely a wine to try, and can sometimes be found for a few dollars less than the Spanish expression. Albariño's best food partners are seafood: shrimp, scallops, crab, and lobster all come to mind.

No matter which section of Iberia you choose to explore, Albariño is worth seeking out, whether you are part of the ABC crowd or not. Here's a flight of three to taste and compare if you are feeling daring!

Orowines Kentia Albariño ($14): Lemon, melons, and tropical fruits. Very fruity and balanced and a great way to introduce yourself to Albariño.

Legado del Conde Albariño ($16): Very intense grapefuit and fresh green herbs on the nose, yet fuller-bodied than the Kentia.

Aveleda Vinho Verde Alvarinho ($13): Orange and lemon zest with floral notes. Citrusy on the palate with just a touch of stone fruits and mango.

Fun To Say, Fun To Drink: Gewürztraminer

The Battle of Turckheim, Alsace, 1675. Only the beginning of the fighting in this revered territory that produces some of the most exquisite wines in the world. Image credit:  Wikipedia

The Battle of Turckheim, Alsace, 1675. Only the beginning of the fighting in this revered territory that produces some of the most exquisite wines in the world. Image credit: Wikipedia

Sometimes, you need an excuse to step outside of your comfort zone. Internally, you might recognize that you need to branch out and be more adventurous in your drinking. However, it can be difficult to choose a direction, particularly if you are not familiar with some of the grape varieties available to you.

So today, I unveil the "Fun To Say, Fun To Drink" feature for you. Need a run-down of a wine grape that you might have seen on a shelf, but you were hesitant to spend the money on it? I have you covered, and the debut involves the distinct and unusual grape called Gewürztraminer. do you say that, and what is it?

Gewürztraminer (guh-VERTZ-trah-meen-er) is an aromatic white grape variety which, despite having a German name, has its roots in Alsace, France. If you read your history books, you will remember that this eastern section of France was fought over for many centuries, changing hands from French to German rule a number of times until the end of World War II. It's cool, yet sunny climate lets Gewürztraminer and other aromatic varieties thrive. Despite being considered a white grape, Gewürztraminer has a pink/red color to its skins. Because of that, the wines end up having a coppery hue to them.

Gewürztraminer ripening in a German vineyard. This bunch is packed with wild aromas and rich flavors.

Gewürztraminer ripening in a German vineyard. This bunch is packed with wild aromas and rich flavors.

So what does Gewürztraminer smell and taste like?

Gewürztraminer is loaded with tropical and exotic fruit, perfume, flowers, and spices; these wild flavors and aromas make sense when we find out that "Gewürztraminer" translates to "spiced traminer", where "traminer" is an ancient family of aromatic varieties that made its home in northeastern Italy's Tyrol region (near the Austrian border). When I went to school at the International Wine Center and studied the Alsace region, our instructor for the session claimed Gewürztraminer to be a "banker" grape; it's aromas are so distinct that if I encountered it on an exam, I could easily identify it and "take it to the bank" that I would be right. Guess what? So can you.

Is all Gewürztraminer the same?

Not at all. Gewürztraminer has the tendency to get high in alcohol and low in acidity, so it can have a flabby, oily texture if the grapes ripen too quickly. Underripe Gewürztraminer can be very light in flavor; I would describe that sensation of drinking rosewater or green tea. There is a wide range of expressions in between those extremes, and vineyard site selection is critical in getting the most out of this grape. Aside from Alsace, you can find Gewürztraminer from northeastern Italy, Germany, Oregon, Washington State's Columbia Valley, the Finger Lakes of New York, and even South Africa. Examples can also finish fruity (with a pleasant bitter edge), dry, or sweet (in the case of "Late Harvest" examples that turn to raisins on the vine).

So what do you have for me and what am I eating with them?

I am glad you asked! By the way, due to Gewürztraminer's fussiness and difficulty to deal with in the vineyards and winery, it is not a cheap wine. That being said, I have some reasonably-priced examples that you should be able to find at your local wine shop or beverage depot.

Montinore Estate Willamette Valley Gewürztraminer ($18)

Floral, citrusy, and gingery, this zesty example from Oregon's Montinore Estate will work great with a range of Thai or Indian dishes. A great way to get yourself familiar with Gewürztraminer for under $20.

Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige Gewürztraminer ($25)

Fermented in stainless steel tanks, this Italian example is very lively and aromatic, but lush on the palate. It's full-bodied texture makes this great with a plate of sausages or a pasta with ground sausage, cream, and basil. The honeyed mango flavors would make this work with duck, too.

Pierre Sparr Alsace Gewürztraminer ($25)

Pierre Sparr traces its history back to the year 1680. Anise, apricots, and dried peaches show in this wine, along with a touch of residual sweetness. If you are familiar with the lychee fruit, you might detect that here, too. I would go with bacon-wrapped scallop with this one.

Pierre Sparr Alsace Gewürztraminer Grand Cru Mambourg ($40)

Pierre Sparr's Mambourg vineyard is dominated by Gewürztraminer vines, which have an average age of 40 years, leading to intense, concentrated wines. This wine is rich and full-bodied with a spectrum of dried tropical fruits, honey, and spice. If you are living it up this would be a great match with foie gras.