Grapevine

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The Independent Culture
IT'S A stroke of Celtic good fortune that the local wine of Brittany goes so brilliantly with all those assiettes de fruits de mer. Muscadet sur lie - produced around the port of Nantes, where Brittany joins the body of France - is a less perfect partner for fish as opposed to shellfish, but it really is one of the very best things to drink with oysters, clams, cockles, whelks and mussels, including moules marinieres and moules a la creme. (Sauvignons, including Sancerre, are the only other wines that generally go so well with such a range of seafood.)

The particular, light, fresh, yeasty-salty-tangy flavour of Muscadet sur lie is what makes it such a good match, a flavour you never find in a basic (not sur lie) Muscadet, which is unreliable and mostly dull. The Muscadet grape itself has little or no flavour. The flavour of sur lie comes from the "lees", the deposit of dead yeasts left in the bottom of the fermentation tanks. As the dead yeast cells break down during the months following fermentation, they release flavourful micro-particles, amino acids. Ordinary Muscadet is bottled early, before the yeasts decompose. It is usually syphoned off from the growers' tanks by merchants who filter it and bottle it later.

Many merchants have until now also bought and syphoned off growers' sur lie Muscadets in the same way, from the official sur lie start date in December, only a short time after the basic Muscadet. Then they blend together the sur lie produce of many growers and bottle it on a factory scale. A third of all Muscadet sur lie has so far been treated this way, but researchers from France's official national Appellation Controlee institute have recently confirmed what every good Muscadet producer, peasant or merchant, always knew - that a sur lie Muscadet bottled straight off the lees in the grower's cellar tastes far better than one carted off in a merchant's tanker. In response, the rules are changing so that all sur lie Muscadets must be bottled straight from the original tanks, and spared all that pumping and swooshing around.

The best Muscadet merchants, such as Sauvion, Donatien Bahuaud and Chereau- Carre, have already been sending their little mobile bottling lines from cellar to cellar for years, bottling on the spot. (Another third of all Muscadet sur lie is bottled thus, the last third by the growers themselves.) Mobile bottling is quite a job. The Muscadet area has 4,000 winegrowers, but only 1,500 live entirely off their wine - the rest may be bakers, bankers or butchers, with a hectare or two of family vineyard on the side. Bottling in every little cellar means one batch of wine may not taste exactly the same as the last, but it's worth it for the difference in quality. Merchants hope to persuade more small producers to sell them grapes or juice rather than finished wines, so the wine can be made in bulk in the merchants' wineries, and bot- tled there, straight off its lees.

At the same time, Muscadet growers agreed from the 1994 vintage onwards to cut their crops (smaller grape yields mean more flavour). Sur lie Muscadets from last vintage now have to stay longer on their lees before bottling. The earliest bottling date for Muscadet sur lie used to be 15 December - oysters are a vital part of the French Christmas feast and Muscadet sales in France boom at Christmas. But by December the yeasty flavour had scarcely begun to appear. This year's far yeastier first bottlings were on the first day of spring, 21 March, more interesting, more complex - and far better with the oysters.

Most Muscadets are best while at their tangiest, in their first year, but good ones from the best producers can age well for years, taking on a toasty, savoury taste. My favourite, 1993 Chateau de la Cornilliere, Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie (pounds 4.99 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up) still has the tangy, fresh character, but some savoury flavours as well. Safeway stocks the excellent organic 1993 Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, Guy Bossard (pounds 5.19), tangy, but changing to take on a buttery softness reminiscent of white Burgundy. Asda's crisp, mature, complex 1993 Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, Domaine Gautron (pounds 4.49) is excellent value. The 1993 Domaine de la Grange Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, Luneau-Papin (pounds 4.89 Oddbins) is attractive, gentler and more honeyed than most; and the 1993 Muscadet Vieilles Vignes, Les Pierres Blanches, Domaine Luneau-Papin (pounds 6.43 Playford Ross of Thirsk, North Yorkshire) is a rather tangier style from the same producer.

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