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Muscat Wine: Why This Multifaceted Grape Stands the Test of Time
McKenzie Hagan |
For all the importance and emphasis we place on wine grapes, it's sort of strange that wine doesn't ever really taste like grapes. From jammy, spicy Zinfandel and chocolatey, cherry Merlot to grassy Sauvignon Blanc and oaky, buttery Chardonnay, there's nary a wine that has oenophiles declaring, "Wow, that tastes like grapes!"
Except for Muscat wine.
Indeed, this versatile vino not only exhibits grapey greatness, it also lends itself to a variety of styles, including dry wine, dessert wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine. What's more, depending on the grape, Muscat wine can be white, red, or rosé. Muscat wine grapes are also one of the few varieties that people commonly enjoy as table grapes (either fresh or dried as raisins).
To give this fruit of the vine the attention it deserves, let's explore the finer details of Muscat wine, including where it comes from, how it's made, which types you can enjoy, what it tastes like, and how to pair it.
What Is Muscat Wine?
Unlike most other wine grapes, there's no single Muscat grape variety. Rather, there's a Muscat family of grapes featuring more than 200 grape varieties that have been around for thousands of years. There's also no single grape color. Muscat grapes range from having light-green skins (such as Muscat Ottonel) and yellowish skin (Moscato Giallo) to pink skin (Moscato Rosa) and dark red, brown, or almost black skin (Black Muscat or Muscat Hamburg).
Muscat wine also goes by a variety of names, depending on location. In Italy, it's Moscato (although in Sicily it’s Zibibbo). In Spain and Portugal, it's Moscatel. In Austria, it's Muskateller.
While experts disagree on where Muscat grapes originated — some say it was Ancient Egypt while others say Ancient Greece — either way, it's clear that they go way back. The oldest and most planted grape of the Muscat family is Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, known as Moscato Bianco in Italy.
The French name is a reference to the varietal's small size (petit grains means “small grains”) while the Italian name (bianco) simply refers to its white color. Speaking of names, the origin of Muscat's name is also up for debate, but many argue it comes from the grape's musky fragrance.
Generally speaking, Muscat grapes thrive in warm weather and a Mediterranean climate, but they're grown around the globe. You'll find them in Old World wine regions across Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Hungary, as well as New World wine regions spanning Australia (most notably Rutherglen), Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States (particularly California).
How Is Muscat Wine Made?
As with any other wine, Muscat winemaking begins once the grapes are harvested, pressed, and fermented. As you may recall from our primer on how to make wine from grapes, fermentation is when yeast converts the sugars in the grapes into alcohol. If the goal is a dry wine, the winemaker will allow the yeast to consume most (if not all) of the sugars. If the aim is to produce a sweet wine, fermentation will be halted so there's more residual sugar.
To create a sparkling wine, the grapes must undergo a secondary fermentation process to produce those fizzy little bubbles. And if the vintner is creating a fortified wine, a distilled spirit — typically a grape spirit like brandy or cognac — will be added either before or after fermentation.
All of these factors play a role in the final product, as do other elements, like whether it's fermented and aged in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. Typically, oak barrels impart more complexity and spicy notes while stainless steel tanks tend to keep a fresh, crisp, and fruity flavor profile.
Some Muscat wine grapes are also blended with other varietals. For example, if you see a Gentil blend from Alsace, France, you'll know that it's a dry white wine made with a blend of at least 50% Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, or Gewurztraminer with Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, or Chasselas comprising the rest.
Pro Tip: You might think Muscadet is yet another name for Muscat, but don't let the similar-sounding monikers fool you. Muscadet is a dry white wine from France made with Melon de Bourgogne grapes.
Muscat Wine Styles, Tasting Notes, and Food Pairings
Muscat wine grapes are grown throughout the world but there are a handful of Muscat wine styles that dominate the landscape. Here's a quick breakdown of the Muscat varieties you need to know, plus some tasty pairings for you to try.
Probably the most well-known Muscat wines are the Italian versions known as Asti Spumante and Moscato d'Asti. Both are made from Moscato Bianco grapes in the Asti province of Italy's Piedmont region. There's a good chance you've enjoyed one of these sweet sparkling white wines when toasting someone's birthday, wedding, job promotion, or other celebratory occasion. (Hey, Champagne and Prosecco aren't the only fizz in town.)
Asti Spumante is a classic bubbly with full effervescence and anywhere from 6-9% ABV (alcohol by volume). Moscato d'Asti is a frizzante (Italian for "lightly sparkling") that has a low alcohol content of just 5.5% ABV. These sparkling Moscatos tend to offer bright flavors of citrus and tropical fruit with pronounced acidity and sweet aromas of grape, orange blossom, and stone fruit like apricots.
By the way, if you want to sip on bubbly but you're counting carbs, you'll love our Usual Wines Brut sparkling wine. It's irresistibly sparkly, crisp, and carb-friendly with zero grams of sugar.
Food Pairing: These light-bodied, acidic sparklers are perfect partners for pungent blue cheeses as well as creamy Brie or Camembert. You also can’t go wrong with charcuterie, light fish, salty chips or nuts, and fresh fruit.
Still Muscat Wine
Non-sparkling Muscat wines are made with a variety of Muscat grapes, including Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (Moscato Bianco) and Muscat of Alexandria, which is primarily cultivated in South Africa and Australia. These white wines have that characteristic grapey taste and musky fragrance as well as notes of apricot, honey, and pear. While they're typically dry wines, your palate might perceive them as sweet and fruity.
Food Pairing: Whether it’s dry or off-dry, Muscat wine is an ideal complement for spicy food, especially Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine. For dessert, try it with cheesecake, chocolate, or dried fruit.
Pink Moscato is made with white Muscat Blanc grapes that are blended with red grapes (usually Merlot) to give it that signature blush hue. However, some winemakers use the red Muscat Frontignan grape instead. You can find pink Muscat wine in both still and sparkling varieties that tend to be on the sweeter side with lovely aromatics and flavors of citrus, stone fruit (think nectarine and peach), and strawberry.
Food Pairing: As with other rosé wines, Pink Moscato is delicious with fresh seafood, grilled chicken, barbecued meats, creamy pasta dishes, and a variety of fruity finishes like strawberry tarts, peach cobbler, or pound cake with whipped cream.
Also referred to as Brown or Black Muscat wine, Red Moscato comes from the darker-hued varietals in the Muscat family. Although not as common as white Muscat, these vinos maintain some of those signature Muscat wine characteristics but with a fuller-bodied complexity. They usually have a sweet, fruity flavor (berries, peach, tropical fruit) and rich floral aromatics (rose, violet, honeysuckle). For varieties aged in oak barrels, expect spicier notes such as vanilla, nutmeg, and clove.
Food Pairing: Enjoy this Muscat wine alongside rich cheeses like goat or Gorgonzola, as well as with chicken, flank steak, or burgers. For dessert, try it with chocolate truffles, creamy caramels, or berry fruit tarts. You can also pair it with Black Muscat table grapes!
While many Moscatos veer toward the sweeter side, they're not necessarily dessert wines, which have the highest sugar levels. Dessert Muscat is usually oak-aged and produced in a number of regions around the world.
There's Muscat de Rivesaltes and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, two sweet fortified wines from France's Rhône Valley. Moscatel Sherry is a rich, raisiny sweet wine from Spain. Portugal is home to the fortified Moscatel de Setúbal while Greece produces Muscat of Samos, a sweet, lemony sipper. Australia's Rutherglen wine region makes some of the world's sweetest Muscat wines with intense flavors of raisin, honey, and caramel.
Food Pairing: For a fully decadent experience, enjoy with a slice of apple or cherry pie à la mode. Otherwise, savor this sweet sipper on its own.
Make Merry With Moscato
As you can see, Muscat wine is anything but a one-note wonder. While you might be familiar with the frizzy fun of Asti Spumante, there's much more to this venerable varietal than meets the eye.From its ancient beginnings to its incredible versatility, Muscat wine offers a little something for everyone, and you can actually taste (or at least catch a whiff of) that signature grapey flavor. Try Muscat Wine at an outdoor soiree or your next night in.