At the end of last year, it was reported that 200 Muscadet producers had or were on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. In a region that has around 600 growers, losing 1/3 of its work force will most certainly be felt. So, what happened?
Muscadet has suffered from what might be called the Soave Syndrome. Following a marked increase in its popularity, hectoliters and hectoliters of acidic, non-descript wine were produced yet at steadily rising prices (if Pinot Grigio does not watch itself, it may succumb to the same fate). By the mid-90s, much of Muscadet’s more traditional markets – France itself as well as the UK – had had enough and stopped or at least lessened their purchases.
The sad repercussion in all of this is that even amongst the plonk, there always remains those dedicated growers who passionately keep their noses to the grind stone and produce beautifully refined yet characteristic wines – those that embody the flinty granite soil and the salt-kissed breezes for which good Muscadet is known.
Fortunately, Michel Brégeon, our Muscadet producer, has survived the culling, though it was no easy feat. On my last visit this February, he explained that in the UK, he went from 5 importers to none in a matter of 2 years or so in the mid-1990s (we were not yet involved). I know that quality was not the issue because I had been buying his beautifully crafted bottles in the US since the mid-90s and they have always been delicious. It has not been a question of price either. While he is more expensive than some, his wines have always been incredible value.
So, when I asked him why he survived, he plainly stated that it was the quality that has anchored his domaine. There is little to disagree with there. Though there might be a few others, he is the only Muscadet producer that I know who hand picks. Most producers use harvesting machines because according to an important Loire agent, one needs 50 hectares to have a decent living in Muscadet (at the prices that supermarkets are willing to pay for the wines). 50 hectares cannot be picked by hand and still be cheap. Contrarily, Michel only has 7. So, everything is done by hand. Yields are keep down and only natural yeasts are used – no additives whatsoever apart from a tiny bit of sulphur dioxide to keep the freshness – which most wine producers use (particularly for white wines). All this attention to detail has had a very positive impact on his wines.
But that is not the only reason he has survived. His largest export country is the US; being American I can say that we don’t have the same conceptions of Muscadet. Having less vinous history than the UK, we have remained more open-minded. Yes, Blue Nun might be rejected (that was a big brand in the 70s), but Muscadet is different. Many people would not have a clue what Muscadet is, so they are willing to try it. Once they taste Michel’s, they are hooked. In fact, he has become somewhat of a cult figure in the US with articles such as this one from the New York Times giving his 2008, their biggest thumbs up (and an accolade for the best value Muscadet). Over the last few years, demand for his wines has skyrocketed in France as well, making me scratch my head why much of the UK who drinks quality wine continues to snub Muscadet when vignerons like Michel exist.
Unfortunately, 2010 will be his last as retirement is on the horizon. However, all is not lost as a younger apprentice with whom Michel has been working on-and-off since 2006 will be taking over. He, too, is a fanatic about terroir and will be carrying forward Michel’s mineral torch.