This weekend, we're throwing the kids, the beach towels, and the bathing suits in the car and heading to Cape Cod. We're also packing plenty of Muscadet. A bone-dry, zesty white wine, Muscadet makes a toothsome après-plage aperitif and goes smashingly with seafood, which is pretty much all we've got on the menu for the next two weeks. Produced in France in the Pays Nantais, where the Loire Valley bumps up against the Atlantic Ocean, Muscadet has traditionally been considered a modest wine with much to be modest about. But the region does have a few very talented and ambitious vintners who are turning out excellent Muscadets, wines whose prices—$10 to $20 a bottle—aren't nearly commensurate with their quality.
Muscadet is made from a grape bearing the peculiar name melon de Bourgogne. I'm not sure where the melon comes from; the Bourgognereflects the grape's Burgundian origins. The grape was brought to the Loire coast in the 17th century. Local winemakers needed a varietal that could better withstand the harsh winters, and the Dutch traders who supplied much of their business were keen on melon de Bourgogne because it was good for distillation. The grape was planted in and around the city of Nantes, near the mouth of the Loire River, and the maritime setting proved fortuitous: There is an undeniable synergy between melon de Bourgogne and the sea, right down to the pronounced saline note that is present in many Muscadets and can leave you feeling as if you just sucked an oyster shell dry.
The Loire churns out greater quantities of Muscadet than any other wine, white or red. There are several Muscadet appellations; the largest, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, accounts for around 80 percent of total Muscadet production, and while much of its output consists of industrial swill, it is also the source of most of the good Muscadets. Because melon de Bourgogne yields wines that are inherently light on flavor and character, crafting even just a mildly interesting Muscadet requires a cellar process called sur lie (a phrase that normally appears on the labels of Muscadets that are made this way). After fermentation, the wines are kept on their lees, sediment comprised mainly of dead yeast cells, through the winter, which gives them richness and complexity they would otherwise not have. Because this is done in the fermentation tanks, the wines are also left with a residue of carbon dioxide, which imparts a slight, refreshing fizz.
There are vintners who elevate Muscadet into something that is more than just passable—who turn out genuinely appealing wines. They've set themselves and their juices apart by restricting crop yields, leaving the grapes on the vine until they are fully mature, harvesting by hand rather than machine, and using indigenous yeasts instead of commercial strains. Some of the better winemakers practice organic farming, and a couple have gone one step beyond that and embraced biodynamic viticulture, a holistic, quasi-mystical approach to vineyard management that generates a lot of controversy but often yields wines of uncommon vigor and character.