It’s certainly not news that Moscato sales are skyrocketing. They have been for the past few years, with no signs of abatement foreseeable. Moscato has become the buzz word for millennial novice wine-drinkers. Indeed it was a success story just waiting to happen. First you have a wine that is usually sweet to the taste – which appeals to beginning wine-drinkers – and then you have major endorsements from big name personalities in the entertainment field whose word makes millions reach for their wallets. With this kind of backing Moscato inevitably became the next big thing. And predictably, big corporate wineries and money-hungry independents all jumped on the bandwagon.
All this tends to make the seasoned wine lover become cynical, not only toward the media hoopla but to the wine itself. Moscato, however, has a venerable history and a variety of interesting styles, so let’s not dismiss it too quickly.
First of all let’s look at the grape: It is known as Muscat in France, Moscato in Italy, Moscatel in Spain and Portugal, and has a number of other names around the world. The Muscat family of grapes includes over 200 grape varieties of the Vitis vinifera species. They can be white, yellow, pink or near black. Historically they are perhaps the oldest of all domesticated grape varieties and may possibly have also been the ancestor of most other Vitis vinifera grapes, which includes just about every major wine grape that we drink and cherish today. Ampelographers date Muscat’s origin to between 800 BCE and 600 CE though it may date as far back as 3000 BCE. The first documented evidence however comes from Germany in the 13th century and was later translated into French as “vin extrait de raisins muscats.”
There are two Muscat varieties which are by far the most planted worldwide – Muscat blanc à Petits Grains which is traditionally used in Italian Moscato and Asti as well as in many of the delightful French fortified vin doux; and Muscat of Alexandria which is used in some French vin doux as well as virtually all Spanish Moscatel (one of the three possible sherry grapes) and Californian, Australian and South African Moscato. (In Alsace another variety Muscat Ottonel is used which produces a drier style and is perfect as an aperitif.) Muscat blanc à Petits Grains is acknowledged as the highest quality. Muscat of Alexandria is the staple of most inexpensive non-Italian Moscato including many of California’s white jug wines. It is also used in Chile to produce the distilled drink Pisco.
Moscato d’Asti is what most of us think of when this grape variety is mentioned, at least once we get past the glut of cheap and indifferent wines that are thrown out there to make a quick buck. Here is a delicate, flavorsome, frizzante (slightly sparkling) wine of low alcohol (by law it can only be 5.5% ABV) and excellent quality. Though produced in Italy’s Piedmont area for many centuries, modern production began in the 1870s. Originally it was made only for the winemaker and his workers. It was a light, refreshing lunchtime wine that could be enjoyed out-of-doors and in the fields, or after dinner as a digestive. The same grape, by the way, is also used in the fully sparkling Asti wines. And as a note to the many lovers of hip-hop’s bling culture, Moscato d’Asti (NOT lower quality generic Moscato) was the wine Jay-Z turned to after he took it upon himself to boycott Champagne.
So let’s just finish by saying that there’s more to Moscato than meets the eye. If you’re fairly new to wine drinking please do yourself a favor and drink Moscato at its best. It’s really not that much more expensive and is worth every penny. If you’re one of those seasoned wine lovers who has become cynical – take a little time to renew your acquaintance with this simple delight. Either way you can’t lose!
Bill Stobbs, Wine & Spirits Supervisor
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