Claude Branger started with his father, working “derrière le cheval” on 7 hectares. He now owns 26.5 hectares of vines and his son, Sébastien, who arrived officially at the domain in 2007, works right beside him. These conscientious winegrowers—they harvest by hand—never yielded to the sirens of doing things the easy way. They like ripe but very dry Muscadets.
–La Revue du Vin de France, Les Meilleurs Vins de France 2019
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 domain of Haute Févrie during the First World War. Today his wife Thérèse continues to manage the home office in Maison-sur-Sèvre (as well as an eye-popping vegetable garden), while his son Sébastien is taking the lead on the affairs of the domain. They farm close to 70 acres in two parishes in the heart of the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation.
Among the small cadre of committed growers—and it remains a small cadre—the father and son team of Claude and Sébastien rank among the top. Claude was an early member of Terra Vitis, an organization that sets guidelines for sustainable farming and monitors its members’ practices to ensure compliance. Subsequently, Sébastien embarked the domain on the road to full-fledged organic farming. The first parcels received certification in 2016 and by vintage 2019 all of the domain’s parcels will be fully certified.
Sébastien has introduced three new wines: a méthode traditionnelle sparkling wine made entirely from Melon, and two new crus. The crus communaux are the most exciting thing to come down the Muscadet pike in recent time, and are meant to be the apex of the pyramid in Muscadet (the base being made up of generic Muscadet, and the middle being made up of the three sub-appellations of Sèvre et Maine, Côteaux de la Loire, and Côtes de Grandlieu). The INAO recognized the following crus in 2011:
• Gorges, based on clay and quartz; 29.6 acres delimited.
• Le Pallet, based on gabbro, gneiss, and orthogneiss (all metamorphic); 163 acres delimited and this has the largest surface because the vineyard area belongs to the local cooperative.
• Clisson, based on granite with quartz and mica; 49 acres delimited.
Four are to follow and official recognition could come in 2018:
• Monnières-St Fiacre, based on gneiss; 32 acres delimited.
• Château-Thébaud, based on sandy granite; 27 acres delimited.
• Goulaine, gneiss and schist; 15 acres delimited.
• Mouzillon-Tillières, based on gabbro; 22 acres delimited.
Further down the road, three more are up for recognition:
• La Haye-Fouaissière, based on gneiss, orthogneiss, and amphibolites; 30 acres delimited.
• Vallet, based on schist and gabbro; 22 acres delimited.
• Champtoceaux, in Côteaux de la Loire and the only one of these ten not in Sèvre-et-Maine; 15 acres delimited.
Total surface for these crus communaux is 376 acres. An homogeneous soil base combined with the inherent quality of a given site are the main criteria, coupled with lower maximum yields—45 hectoliters per hectare for a cru compared to 55 hl/ha for the sub-appellations—and a minimum ageing period on the lees (17 months for Le Pallet and 24 months for Gorges and Clisson, but in practice the aging period exceeds 24 months for most of these wines).
The Brangers have vines in Monnières-St Fiacre and in Château-Thébaud (above is a photo of Château Thébaud and its bedrock of granite, taken from the other side of the river Maine). The vines and the wines from both crus are treated identically, and what you get in the bottle is a clear reflection of the differing terroir.
The father and son team prunes its vines for low yields, harvests by hand (a rarity in this land of machine harvesting), and lets its wine rest on the 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 wine its freshness and lift. Contrary to popular opinion, Melon 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 (acid Muscadet is usually the product of under ripe, high-yielding machine-harvested grapes).
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 roost. Today, there are four appellations in the region: the base appellation of Muscadet followed by the three sub-appellations. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine appellation is the most varied and by far the largest (this AC produces more wine than any other in the Loire Valley). A generation ago, most of its wine was forgettable except that from a few dedicated growers such as Claude Branger. Nowadays, a revolution in quality is taking place. 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 with flavor intensity and length. This is wine of the north Atlantic coast, the product of Brittany’s great shelf of granite. Melon de Bourgogne is a white cousin to Gamay, and like Gamay it can be easy, it can be delicious, and it can surprise. For those of you who like white wine that falls on the austere side of the spectrum–and I mean that in the best of senses–wine that favors detailed verticality in place of opulence, then good Muscadet is one of the best white wine values in the world.
An old windmill amid vines not far from Branger; an iconic image in Muscadet.
|L’éClipse Méthode Traditionnelle||Melon de Bourgogne||The grapes for this wine come from three adjacent plots of Melon in the Clos Joubert vineyard. These grow down slope near the Sèvre River in relatively heavy clay soils on gneiss. Clay translates into power and acidity for white grapes, a big plus for sparkling wine production. The plots were planted in 1964, 1968, and 1976, and 1985, and total an acre and a half. The wine is made entirely in house rather than at an élaborateur, and this artisan approach is carried through to the back label, which details the date of bottling and the subsequent date of disgorgement, thereby showing the length of time the wine spent on its lees in bottle. The name comes from when Claude and Sébastien witnessed a partial eclipse of the sun while harvesting in the Clos Joubert vineyard.|
|Le Fils des Gras Moutons||Melon de Bourgogne||This is the domaine’s excellent base wine coming from 26 acres of vines in earlier maturing plots (while named the son of the wine below, this does not come from the same vineyard—it is simply made in the same spirit). The soil runs from 10 to 16 inches deep and the granite bedrock is metamorphic gneiss full of mica and quartz. These vines average 40 years of age and their yield averages 50 hectoliters per hectare (the legal maximum permitted in the AC, and thus the norm, is 55 hl/ha). The wine rests on its lees for six to seven months before bottling, and a productive year will see 5,800 cases made.|
|Terroir les Gras Moutons||Melon de Bourgogne||From 18 acres of vines growing in a celebrated vineyard named the Fat Sheep.* This is in the adjacent commune of Saint Fiacre, which is the smallest of the 23 communes in the Sèvre et Maine AC and one with some of the best grape growing land. The rocky gneiss soil here is thin, between 6-14 inches deep, in a seam of amphibolite, a greenish metamorphic rock. The vines were planted between 1930 and 1986, and average more than 50 years old. The meager soil and the old vines give naturally low yields, averaging 45 hl/ha. The wine rests on its lees in underground tanks for twelve to fourteen months. Ripe, round, concentrated and intensely mineral, this wine can age beautifully, developing aromas with bottle age that are a cross between Riesling and Pinot Blanc. A productive year sees 3,625 cases made. Note that Gras Moutons is authorized for Monnières-Saint Fiacre cru production; it's up to the grower to decide if he wants to bottle within 14 months of sur lie aging, or pick a lower yield and wait a minimum of 24 months.
* Fat Sheep is the current literal translation, but it’s pretty far off base. Gras moutons comes from the old local dialect for gros moton or gros motton. Gros refers to something important, as in big or prominent. Moton is derived from mons in Latin, referring to mont (mount in English), the base for montagne or mountain. Motton comes from motte, referring to a natural levy or rise in the ground. Whether you go with moton or motton, it’s clear that Gras Moutons refers to a high point of ground in the area.
|Monnières-Saint Fiacre||Melon de Bourgogne||This cru is based on gneiss soil and made up of a selection of well-sited vineyards. The Brangers have four parcels awarded the right to make this cru, including Gras Moutons (thus a portion of those grapes go into this wine). The first release came from the 2009 vintage and less than 400 cases were produced. They made the wine with indigenous yeast and left it on its lees in a horizontal underground tank for 33 months (the INAO rules require 24). Check the links below to see maps of the crus and of the Branger parcels.|
|Château-Thébaud||Melon de Bourgogne||Like most of these crus, Chateau Thébaud takes its name from the local village. This cru is based upon sandy granite soils. The Brangers have two parcels, both planted in the 1960s, and they total 8 acres. The grapes here ripen on the later side and the wine requires extended aging--36 to 48 months on the lees--to really show its stuff. Thébaud often has notes of fennel and anise in the nose and tends to be an up-front wine, displaying its attributes across an open fan in contrast to the soul-searching ocean depths of Monnières-Saint Fiacre.|