Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Many Kinds of Muscat

One of the oddities of wine culture is that very few wines taste of the grapes they are made from. Noted exceptions are two of the many Muscat varieties: Muscat Hamburg and Muscat of Alexandria.

These versatile Muscats are used to make wine and are good to eat out of hand.  However, the grapes are generally thought to be better as table grapes than wine grapes, although the ancient Muscat of Alexandria has the edge over Muscat of Hamburg as a wine grape. California is one place where Alexandria has long been a popular for wine making.


Muscat varieties are reputed to be among the oldest grapes known. Discoveries in archeology digs along the Mediterranean basin have uncovered evidence of grape residue estimated to be thousands of years old.  The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described a wine he had, as being made from uva apiana, or the "grape of the bees."  Pliny likely was musing that the wine he had tasted was honied, one of the common descriptors associated with Muscat wine.

The key sensory component of all Muscat grapes, however, is a strong "musky" perfume that is carried over to the wine. There is no mistaking the smell and taste of a Muscat wine, and once it is imprinted in your wine memory, that singular Muscat character will be immediately recognized.  

The oldest known Muscat grape is Muscat Blanc. That's the short form. The full name is a mouthful: Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, or the white Muscat with small (round) berries.  Most Muscats, like Alexandria, are oval in shape, but among the unusual characteristics of Muscat Blanc is its round shape. 

Here are a few of the better known Muscat grapes that make acceptable, if not great, wine. 

Muscat Blanc.  Despite its name, this popular Muscat has small, round pink-red berries. Muscat Blanc has more than 60 synonyms, such as Muscat Canelli and Muscat of Frontignan. Wines made from Muscat Blanc include Beaumes-de-Venise, Australia's great Rutherglen (Brown) Liqueur Muscat, the many dry and sweet Moscatos of Italy, and the dry Muscats from Roussillon, in the south of France.

Muscat of Alexandria. Although Muscat of Alexandria has been replaced by Muscat Blanc in many parts of the world, it is still one of the most widely planted Muscats in the world. Wines made from Muscat of Alexandria tend to be sweet and lack finesse, with much of the juice used for other things like the famous Chilean grape distillate, Pisco. Noteworthy wines made from Alexandria: Spain's sweet Moscatel, Moscatel de Setubal and dry Moscatels of Portugal, California's Muscat of Alexandria and Spain's Gordo Blanco, a plump grape, that sounds like a movie bandito, used mostly in blends. 

Muscat of Hamburg.  Despite the family connection to Muscat of Alexandria, this Muscat gets little respect from wine makers.  More common as a table grape, "Black Muscat," the grape's name in California, is enjoyed in eastern European countries, as a sweet grapy wine.

Muscat Ottonel.  The best known wine made from Muscat Ottonel is Muscat d'Alsace, a blend of Ottonel and Muscat Blanc, from the Alsace region of France. Muscat Ottonel is also grown in Austria, Romania and Hungary where the grape is sometimes called misket.

The above list of Muscat grapes and wines could go on and on, but I'll just add two more wines that owe their fame to a Muscat grape. The first is a wildly popular sparkling wine that few consumers know comes from a Muscat grape. Asti Spumante, from the northern Italian province of Piedmont, is made from at least 97% Moscato Bianco (aka Muscat Blanc).

Asti Spumante is sweet and fizzy, with about 9.5% alcohol.  Moscato d'Asti is an upgrade from Asti, and is not as sweet, alcoholic or bubbly.  Better yet is Asti Spumante Metodo Classico, with a minimum alcohol of 10%, better grapes and a second fermentation in the bottle. Fermenting in the bottle is generally superior to  tank fermentation, which is used to make both Asti Spumante and Moscato d'Asti.

                                                      Morris of Rutherglen, Classic Liqueur Rutherglen Muscat

Then, there is the stunning Liqueur Muscat of Rutherglen,Victoria, Australia.  Very sweet and very delicious, these wines are made from a dark-skinned strain of Muscat Blanc, called Brown Muscat and a bit of Muscadelle, the latter unrelated to any member of the Muscat family. You may recognize Muscadelle as the third grape in Sauternes and Barsac, with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

The body and texture of these semi-raisined, fortified sweet wines is not as thick as treacle, but their tongue-coating sensation is similar. Liqueur Muscat flavors are rich and opulent, but not cloying.  Now known by the cumbersome name of Topaque and Muscat, these Australian liquid gems are made in four grades: Rutherglen Muscat, Classic, Grand and Rare. 

No matter which style of Muscat appeals to you, Asti Spumante or Liqueur Muscat,  treat yourself today to the unique taste of Muscat.

Next blog: Alto Adige

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