Pais Nantais, Loire Valley
So where on earth is the Pais Nantais you ask? Well, it is the large appellation surrounding the city of Nantes in the very west of the Loire Valley wine region. This rather large appellation begins at the shores of the Bay of Biscay and follows the Loire River about 90km east to the start of the Anjou appellation. Pais Nantais (pronounced pay non-tay) is a very low and wet part of the French countryside, and interestingly enough is one of the few regions of France not particularly well-known for cheese or butter, as most wine regions are. Seafood is life here in Pais Nantais, and of course, the local wine has evolved to be a perfect match to the local fare!
If you haven’t heard of Pais Nantais, then you may have heard of Muscadet, the hero of the appellation. Muscadet is not made of Muscadet or any other Muscat-related grape but instead made of 100% Melon de Bourgogne (or just Melon for short) grapes. The word ‘Muscadet’ is similar to saying ‘Champagne’ or ‘Burgundy’- it does not indicate variety but region and style. As the name would indicate, apparently Melon de Bourgogne is an ancient variety originally from Burgundy that grows well in the wet, so is suited to this damp region by the sea. Melon was introduced to the region after the devastatingly harsh winter of 1709, which basically destroyed every vine in the region. Interestingly, it was the Dutch who suggested growers plant Melon (after all, Pais Nantais is a pretty long way from Burgundy!), which grew quickly and ripened reliably in the cool, wet weather. The naturally high acidity and neutral flavour were perfect for making into spirits, and the Dutch, who in the early 18th century needed huge volumes of ‘Brandewijn’, their equivalent of Whisky or Cognac, as their ventures across the Americas expanded. The sea-faring Dutch could easily ship barrels of Brandewijn out of this region due to its proximity to the ocean, and so pumped money into this devastated and cash-strapped region, setting in stone the regions reliance upon this one variety.
The Dutch brandy trade declined after the Americas began producing their own products, leaving the Nantais locals with a grape variety that was reliable, did better in the cold winters and yielded high crops, but was really bland- hence its suitability to being distilled! The wine had plenty of acidity, but the region lacked the deep underground chalk cellars which facilitated the institution and success of the Champagne region through long ageing, and lacked the flavour and alcohol to be an effective match to many foods, with the exception of the local seafood dishes such as cod, sardines, mackerel, sea-bass, eels, mussels, oysters, scallops and crab- all of which have a subtle flavour and richness to them that matches well to a neutral variety like Melon and wines like Muscadet. And while this was fine in one of France’s most important ports in the regional capital Nantes, producers found that the wines of Pais Nantais didn’t sell well anywhere else in France, or Europe for that matter!
Now with some grape varieties (like Melon), it doesn’t seem to matter how much you lower the crop levels or what trellis you train the vine to, it just doesn’t have much natural flavour! So, the inventive and resourceful winemakers of this appellation decided to use a method of building more flavour, texture and interest in their wines after they were harvested from the vines; the Sur Lie method! Sur Lie means ‘on the lees’ and it does what it says on the tin; the wine is kept for months (sometimes years) on its gross lees, which are the dead bodies of yeast cells which have lived out their short lives and completed the conversion of grape sugar into alcohol, killing themselves in the process by creating a high-alcohol environment- what irony!
Over time, the yeast cell bodies break down, aided by a sustained regimen of stirring them through the wine, known as batonnage in French. This breakdown of yeast cells adds a doughy, almond-mealy, yeasty weight to the mid-palate of the wine, as well as encourages malolactic conversion, which turns hash malic acid into creamier lactic acid. This lees breakdown also releases things called mannoproteins into the wine, which reduces the perception of astringency in the wine. This is very important for a neutral variety like Melon, as its juice is usually kept on the grape skins for an extended time (usually a few days) to build colour, flavour and weight, though this can extract unwanted tannins from the skins and seeds (imagine the bitterness you experience when you bite a grape seed). Interestingly enough these mannoproteins do not actually remove the bitter tannins, but instead disrupt the binding of salivary proteins, which are detected by the taste buds and experienced by the brain, to these bitter tannins. Those of you that have tried an ‘orange wine’ will know the experience of astringent, bitter tannins in a white wine, and without abundant fruit flavours to match (which Melon definitely lacks!) this can become overwhelming.
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is the most recognisable and high quality sub-region in the Pais Nantais, and the Sur Lie styles from this sub-region are often some of the highest rated and most expensive. This sub-region is located at the confluence of the Sèvre and Maine rivers (after which the US state of Maine is named!), both tributaries of the Loire. This small region is a perfect spot for getting the most out of Melon; a combination of volcanic, metamorphic and alluvial sub-soils has led to an abundance of potassium, magnesium and calcium, providing the vines with the minerals they require for optimal growth, while the chalky limestone soils and gravels provide the much-needed drainage in this wet region. Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is also the most monocultural region, growing 100% Melon de Bourgogne. As I mentioned before Melon is very productive and can produce huge crops in the right conditions, which makes this the most productive region in all of the Loire, producing more bottles every year than any other appellation. Seafood anyone?
Wine Sales Manager