Welcome to Varying Hues, a column in which Wine Steward Maxwell Leer explores unsung, colorful wines from around the world.
Fresh mussels are one of the greatest tasting things on earth. Whether prepared as chowder, steamed in broth and served with bread or fries (moules frites), or simply eaten cold on a fruits de mer platter, mussels made well are a spectacular snack. Mussels are uniquely flavored and if paired to wine require a special breed of wine flavor and texture. Muscadet, as it goes, is a mussel's beloved wine counterpart.
Made of Melon de Bourgogne, or simply Melon, Muscadet is a white wine that hails from the Loire Valley of Northwestern France. Specifically, there are just under a half dozen regions in the Loire producing Muscadet, most of which are coastal and deeply affected by maritime influence. Why is Muscadet a mussel wine, one may ask? Answer: a winemaking process known as sur lies ageing, or ageing wine on its dead yeast cells over the winter months. Sur lies winemaking leaches out flavors otherwise dormant in white wine; a flavor typically described as mineral-y or, and in some instances salty. Furthermore, it is uncommon that makers of Muscadet employ wooden barrels for ageing and thus the wines take on a crystal clean fruitiness prime for the bivalve pairing.
Although mussels freshly gleaned from a local bed, from say Penn Cove on Whidbey Island for instance, cannot be surpassed in their magnificence, there are a some fantastic local preparations here in L.A: the big-ass green mussels floating in spicy broth at Jitlada or the mussels of Chef Ori Menashe (Bestia) made with nduja sausage come to mind. It is, however, Daniel Mattern at Cooks County whose mussel preparations spontaneously ignite saliva glands in the midday prompting a nighttime visit. Daniel and his partner pastry chef Roxana Jullapat are both talented and passionate, they source raw ingredients from great farms for their restaurant on Beverly Boulevard.
To gather some language on the flavor of mussels and what recipes you might encounter at Cooks County, Daniel was asked the following questions:
How would you describe the flavor of mussels? Oceanic, somewhat sweet and salty.
What is your favorite way to prepare mussels? It's important to keep it somewhat simple, some shallots, garlic and good white wine. Fresh herbs are important too ... Thyme, parsley, maybe basil, a pinch of chili and a knock of butter, squeeze of lemon. Done.
Why dip blackened toast in mussel broth? That's where the payoff is! The broth is where it all comes together: the vineyards, the ocean and the farms. Moping up the broth with bread charred with a wood flame is the perfect way to taste it all.
What wine flavors do you enjoy alongside a meal of mussels? Something sweet, citrusy and bright.
Perusing the pantry of popular online vocabulary used to describe Muscadet, the following nuggets are worth considering: (i) "a lick of lemon," (ii) "front of tongue piquancy," (iii) "soft like a sea breeze," and (iv) "gentle on the wallet." Gimmicks aside, Muscadet is oftentimes a crisp (or, dry), bright (or, high acid) and affordable (or, gulpable) white wine. Some producers whose Muscadets are transcendental include Marc Olivier of Domaine de la Pépière and Pierre Luneau-Papin of Domaine de la Grange. Muscadet comes from a cool and often neglected wine region, and as a result, some funny sayings emerge of Melon grapes being thin, pale, neutral and somewhat undesirable. If one were to scratch the surface of that wine language hard enough a bigot might emerge. For a white wine that is 12% in alcohol, Muscadet reveals flavor complexities non-existent in many other white wines. And, if in the mood to break flavor boundaries with Muscadet, eat just about anything and see for yourself with what deftness this wine intertwines with edibles of all ethnicities. Just slap a huevo on it? you'll see.
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— Maxwell Leer