There are two kinds of Bostonians. Some embrace fall with gusto, happily unpacking sweaters and making plans for leaf peeping, and then there are the rest of us. If your spirits, and palates, are still playing catch-up after the back-to-school rush, we have just the pours for you: invigorating muscadets, white wines from France’s western Loire region. Known as the classic pairing for oysters, the bottles can offer pungency, tang, and substance. Their distinctiveness has much to do with winemakers using a technique called “sur lie” (on the lees), in a region that lies near the mouth of the Loire River.
The geography and the history of the area are important, so let’s begin there. Muscadet Sevre et Maine, the appellation named for the two rivers, is nestled southeast of Nantes, a city just inland of the North Atlantic, where the salt air tinges grapes with a saline kick. Soils are a geologist’s dream: gneiss, schist, amphibolite, granite, and blue-green volcanic rock called gabbro. To the southwest of Sevre et Maine is Cotes de Grandlieu, a baby of an appellation designated in 1994, featuring sandy and pebbly soils.
Both appellations, like all muscadet wines, use the grape melon de Bourgogne, which made its way from Burgundy to the Loire Valley by the Middle Ages. Dutch traders in the 17th century encouraged cultivation of the varietal to distill into brandy. More recently, in the 1970s, it grew in popularity, made into simple country wines for the region’s pristine seafood. Like other in-demand grapes, it was overplanted, and not necessarily on the sites suited to quality. Today, the best producers are determined to show just how good these wines can be, making the most of advantageous vineyard sites and skillfully aging the wines on the lees.
Lees are sediment made of spent yeast cells that have done their job fermenting wine. While most white wines are separated, or racked, from sediment soon after fermentation, muscadet is left to sit on the fine lees (these are the desirable kind, unlike the coarser gross lees that include pulp and grape skin fragments). The wine undergoes periodic stirring, or battonage, to prevent formation of off flavors. Dead yeast cells release mannoproteins that are thought to bind to tannins, the components responsible for the drying, puckery sensation in the mouth.
The resulting wines are texturally smooth and oh-so tangy, charged with tartness and, of course, that hit of saline. Aromas range from fresh and floral to nutty, biscuity, and downright pungent. Some winemakers leave their reserve muscadet on the lees for several years, although it is more common for muscadet to age for a winter or up to 14 months.
Pair these pours, which are being promoted in restaurants and wine shops this month and next, with shellfish, grilled fish, or cotriade, a traditional fish soup from Brittany. If these moderate-in-alcohol wines (12 percent maximum) don’t coax you into becoming a leaf peeper, at least you’ll know what to drink with those bivalves.
Domaine du Grand Mouton Louis Metaireau “Petit Mouton” Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2011 A pretty quaff with mineral, pear, and white floral aromas and a balanced, attractive palate that finishes with a zip of saline. Around $11. At Blanchards Wines & Spirits, West Roxbury, 617-327-1400; Harvest Co-op, Cambridge, 617-661-1580.
Domaine Michel Bregeon Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2010 Bready, brioche-like aromas intermingle with lemon peel, Pippin apple, and chrysanthemum petals. Tart with appetizing bitterness, stoniness, and sea spray. Around $15. At Martignetti Liquors, Brighton, 617-782-3700; Bauer Wine & Spirits, Back Bay, 617-262-0363.
Domaine de l’Ecu “Cuvee Classique” Muscadet Sevre et Maine 2011 Intriguing aromas of yeast, Bartlett pear, cereal grains, and wildflower honey kept our nose in the glass the longest. Nutty and tangy in the mouth with an appetizing bitter, lemon pith finish. Around $19. At The Wine Bottega, North End, 617-227-6607; Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, Cambridge, 617-225-0040.
Domaine Les Hautes Noelles “Les Parcelles” Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu Sur Lie 2011 Wet stones, green apple, and sweet yeastiness in the nose lead to a lush yellow apple and citrus palate with a salt-edged finish. Around $16. Dave’s Fresh Pasta, Somerville, 617-623-0867; The Wine Bottega.
Domaine de la Louvetrie “Hermine d’Or” Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie 2010 Appetizing mineral, Bosc pear, and freshly dug soil aromas. Tangy and nutty in the mouth with a vivacious hit of sea spray. Around $15. At Cambridge Wine & Spirits, Cambridge, 617-864-7171; Brookline Liquor Mart, Allston, 617-734-7700.