Melon de Bourgogne wine grape

Melon de Bourgogne
The white grape that makes Muscadet. Today it isn’t found outside of the Loire Valley, but as its name suggests its origins lie in Burgundy. DNA analysis shows it was born centuries ago from a chance crossing of Pinot Noir with the obscure, and now almost extinct, Gouais Blanc.

So were about twenty other grape varieties, including Chardonnay and Gamay. In the Middle Ages all the best hillside sites in Burgundy were reserved for Pinot Noir by the nobility, while down in the valleys the peasants planted the less fussy and more productive Gouais Blanc. This went on for centuries, giving the two varieties lots of opportunities to interbreed.

Melon arrived in Anjou in the middle Loire in the 17th Century, at about the same time as it was finally eliminated from its birthplace after repeated attempts by the Dukes of Burgundy to ban it and other “disloyal” grapes in favour of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

It then caught the attention of Dutch traders who at that time bought much of the wine produced around the mouth of the Loire. Those wines were almost all red, but the Dutch encouraged the planting of Melon because of its suitability for distilling into brandy.

Its big break came with the winter of 1709, which was the coldest ever recorded in the region. Barrels burst in the cellars; the coastal waters froze; and the vineyards were devasted. The frost-resistant Melon was one of only two varieties to survive. King Louis XIV himself ordered that the vineyards be replanted with “Muscadent Blanc” which was almost certainly Melon de Bourgogne.

Melon is a pale, thin-skinned variety with neutral flavours. It has good but not high acidity; in fact its acidity levels drop quickly once it has ripened. Muscadet’s freshness is mostly down to the cool climate and the AOC rules that stipulate a maximum alcohol level of 12%, thus preventing producers from over-ripening it.

Its light-bodied wine is particularly suited to sur lie aging on the spent yeast cells left over after fermentation. The enzymes released from the lees during this process can interact unpleasantly with the fruit flavour compounds in most wines. But Melon doesn’t really have any: so it can reap the benefits, adding weight, a creamy texture and a suggestion of sea-salt to its clean, vaguely citric flavours.

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