Domaine Claude Branger Terroir Les Gras Moutons 2013
Claude Branger is a tall, soft-spoken gentleman with silver hair. He dresses neatly and modestly, and there is about him, as there is about his wines, a clear sense of refinement. His grandfather developed the wine domaine of Haute Févrie during the First World War. Today his wife Thérèse manages the office while his son Sébastien works beside him. They farm 61 acres in two parishes in the heart of the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation. The small river of La Sèvre is just to the north, cutting deep into land; further south and east is the sister river of La Petite Maine.
Dutch traders introduced the Melon grape to the region from Burgundy in the 1600s. They wanted grapes for distilling, and the city of Nantes was within ready reach of their boats. An extreme winter in 1709 wiped out the red varieties then locally grown and thereafter Melon came to rule the region. Today, there are four appellations in Muscadet, and Muscadet Sèvre et Maine AC is the best and by far the largest (this AC produces more wine than any other in the Loire Valley). Most of its wine is, unfortunately, forgettable. The fact is there are wines of revelation made here, wines that are soft yet shockingly vigorous, imbued with scents of bread, lemon freshness, and sea salt minerality—a palette of aromas that in the better renditions follows through in the mouth with intensity and length. Melon de Bourgogne is a white cousin to Gamay, and like Gamay it can be easy, it can be delicious, and it can surprise. The best Muscadets are some of the world’s best white wine values. Among the small cadre of committed growers—and it is a small cadre—Claude Branger ranks among the top. His domaine of La Haute Févrie is in Madison, and he is a member of Terra Vitis, an organization that sets guidelines for sustainable farming and monitors its members’ practices to ensure quality control. Claude prunes for low yields, harvests by hand (a rarity in this land of machine harvesting), and lets his wine rest on its lees until bottling, which is done without fining and with a light filtration—the classic sur lie technique. It’s this technique that gives good Muscadet its freshness and lift. Contrary to popular opinion, Muscadet is not, if allowed to ripen properly, naturally high in acid; it’s the lees contact and the resulting CO2 gas that give the wine its crisp spice and zest.
The Pays Nantais, Loire’s only region abutting the Atlantic coast, is solely focused on the Melon de Bourgogne grape in its handful of subzones: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire and Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu. Muscadet wines are dry, crisp, seaside whites made from Melon de Bourgogne and are ideal for the local seafood-focused cuisine. (They are not related to Muscat.) There is a new shift in the region to make these wines with extended lees contact, creating fleshy and more aromatic versions.
Made famous in Muscadet, a gently rolling, Atlantic-dominated countryside on the eastern edge of the Loire, Melon de Bourgogne is actually the most planted grape variety in the Loire Valley. But the best comes from Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, a subzone of Pays Nantais. Somm Secret—The wine called Muscadet may sound suggestive of “muscat,” but Melon de Bourgogne is not related. Its name also suggests origins in Burgundy, which it has, but was continuously outlawed there, like Gamay, during the 16th and 17th centuries.