- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES - Muscat is the forgotten grape, out of step and old-fashioned. But it also is the original grape — or at least as close to original as we’re likely to taste. Most important, wines made from it can be delicious.

Sugary or dry; sparkling, still or fortified, good muscats have a haunting, head-spinning perfume — floral notes akin to rose petals and orange blossoms, combined with echoes of luscious ripe summer fruits such as peaches and apricots. They’re opulent wines, so even when vinified to dryness, they smell at least slightly sweet.

That sweetness explains their current obscurity.

Muscats have become the victims of the contemporary vogue for (supposedly) dry white wines flavored with vanilla-scented oak. When sweeter wines were more in vogue, they used to be much more popular, and odds are that they will become so again. But for now, flavor, rather than fashion, is the reason to drink them.

Ampelographers, or grape scientists, have traced muscat to ancient Greece, making it the oldest grape variety being cultivated today.

Wine growing is older still, going back about 8,000 years and originating east of the Black Sea in what now is Armenia and Georgia. No one knows exactly when the shift from wild vines to cultivated ones occurred, but the first planned vineyard likely bore fruit that tasted and smelled something like muscat.

Three types of muscat are cultivated in vineyards across the globe. Muscat blanc a petits grains is the one the Greeks grew. (They still do, most notably on the island of Samos.) It tends to produce the finest wines — intense but at the same time refined and delicate.

Muscat of Alexandria came next. As the name suggests, it probably originated in Egypt, and then was taken around the Mediterranean by the Romans.

Widely planted today, much of the crop is used for table grapes and raisins. The last of the muscat litter is ottonel, a much more recent arrival, first propagated in a French nursery in the mid-19th century.

To make things more confusing, the three muscats go by a host of other names, depending on where they’re grown and what the local nomenclature may be. In addition, because they love to mutate and change, they all come in multiple clones, with berries of different colors and sizes, and (slightly) different aromas and flavors.

In Italy, particularly Piedmont, muscat, or moscato, is often used to make sparkling wines. Some of the best come from vineyards near the town of Asti. Because of their relatively low alcohol levels, they are super summer sippers, especially before supper.

Moscato d’Asti from Cascina la Spinetta ($20) and Marcarini ($17) both taste wonderfully bright and vibrant. Slightly sweeter, so equally good with a fruit dessert, is Michele Chiarlo’s “Nivole” ($12 for a half bottle). With any of these, buy only the 2003 vintage, as Moscato d’Asti deteriorates quickly with age.

A less expensive and equally exciting sparkling muscat choice comes from the fairly obscure Clairette de Die appellation in the Drome valley of eastern France. Grape-growing here goes back at least as far as the Romans, Pliny the Elder having described sweet wine from Die as the best in all the empire.

Clairette de Die is a misnomer, as the wine is made primarily from muscat blanc a petits grains, not clairette. But it can be delectable nonetheless.

The firm of Jaillance makes an excellent one called “Cuvee Imperiale” that costs only about $13.

Truly dry muscats are relatively rare, the grape naturally tending toward sweetness as its perfume intensifies. Alsace in northeastern France is the one place that excels with them. Epicures there consider muscat the perfect partner to the region’s rich foie gras.

Although admittedly less traditional partners, Indian and Thai dishes also go very well with spicy Alsatian muscat. That’s why it’s a great wine to have on hand when you’re ordering takeout.

A lot of Alsatian muscat is of the ottonel variety, although blanc a petits grains is cultivated in the region, as well. When looking for a dry rendition, ignore bottles that say “vendanges tardives” (late harvest), as they’re likely to seem too sweet to drink with savory foods.

Domaine Weinbach Muscat “Reserve” 2002 ($36) is beautifully crafted, with that firm’s telltale minerality underlying the wine’s delicate fruit flavor.

Firmer and tighter, Marcel Deiss “Bergheim” 2001 ($30) proves extremely food-friendly. Not as complex but considerably less costly, Lucien Albrecht 2002 ($15) is full of vivacious spice.

Many muscats come into their own with (or even as) dessert. The best known come from grapes grown near the town of Beaumes de Venise in France’s southern Rhone valley.

The wines here are called “vins doux natural,” meaning they have been slightly fortified with grape spirit, thus arresting fermentation and retaining sweetness.

Good examples include Domaine de Coyeaux ($15 for a half-bottle), Domaine de Durban ($30) and P. Jaboulet ($32), all from the 2001 vintage. These would be excellent partners for fruit tarts or pies.

A few American wineries make good, balanced dessert muscats. A consistent favorite comes from Robert Pecota in Calistoga in the Napa Valley. Named for his daughter, Pecota’s Moscato d’Andrea ($15 for a half-bottle) tastes clean and refreshing, with a lingering but not at all cloying finish. The grape is blanc a petits grains, here going by its Italian moniker, canelli, and 2001 is the current vintage.

Finally, in Rutherglen in northeastern Victoria, Australia, vintners fortify and age muscat in old barrels, yielding wines they call “liqueurs.” These dessert nectars display an oxidative rather than floral bouquet, so it’s hard to believe they come from the muscat. But they do, and they can be outstanding, especially when paired with chocolate.

Campbells and Chambers Rosewood are two producers that make some of the best examples of Ausie fortified muscat.

Their basic cuvees average about 10 years of age. These wines cost about $16 for a half-bottle, are light amber and taste evocatively of dried fruits, caramel and toffee.

Try them chilled with ice cream. The older versions are thicker, richer and even more expressive, but they cost upward of $70 per half-bottle, so they have to be considered extra-special treats.

As with the younger, floral wines, fortified muscats taste truly distinctive. And that, when all is said and done, is why any wine is worth drinking — no matter what’s in or out of vogue at any given time.

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