The muscat family tree has some interesting branches. To begin with, it’s a seriously ancient varietal, perhaps the oldest one we know of. According to the University of Pennsylvania, who analyzed jugs from the burial mound, muscat was drunk at the funeral of King Midas.
Speculation is that muscat was the first grape to be domesticated, and if that’s true, it means that all the rest—the chardonnays, the pinot noirs, the sauvignon twins blanc and rouge—are all descended from the same clan and should demand a seat at the muscat family picnic.
And for you nose-in-the-air detractors, who think Asti Spumante is an awful thing and muscat the domain of winos holding up homeless signs on the freeway on-ramp, keep in mind that you may be dissing your own mother.
Me, I love muscat so much I should marry it. The blonde hue, the cute, upturned peach and coriander nose, the frizzy, orangey mid-palate, the wild flower and honey-lipped finish; she’s a fresh little minx, my muscat; so maybe I’m not going to discuss recursion theory with her or try to play competitive-level Scrabble, but I tell you, when she comes by with her sisters black muscat and orange muscat, board games are not on the agenda—trust me here.
Part of the problem is she’s got a reputation, and I’m not helping it much. Muscat wears strong and distinctive perfume; some liken it to musk from animals in heat (which is not the etymology; there’s a city called Muscat in Oman, whose name, ironically, means ‘strong-scented’ in Old Persian) but to most wine sniffers, it’s a pleasantly seductive floral aroma with notes ranging from honeysuckle to orange blossom. Muscat’s smell is so pronounced that most incarnations are not particularly food-friendly, but in a pinch, pair the dessert style with raspberries, caramelized walnuts and soft cheeses and the dryer stuff with pork. Whether or not muscat goes with muskrat is probably unknown, but I like to think so.
Four muscat varieties dominate the commercial market—muscat of Alexandria, muscat blanc, muscat hamburg and muscat ottonel. It’s also the base wine for pisco, that Peruvian inebriant strong enough to grow hair on your eyelids. So schizophrenic is the species that muscat’s spectrum ranges from green to golden to red to brown to black, and even may change color from harvest to harvest like Michael Jackson did between Forever, Michael and Thriller.
Lest this page come off as a muscat shrine rather than a sober glance at one of the world’s sexiest varietals, let me say that there are some real muscat stalkers out there. Scary people, even. In 2008, the obsessive-compulsive Muscats du Monde tasted almost two hundred muscats in Languedoc Roussillon, France in what they call a ‘confrontation’ instead of a ‘competition’. These are the people who should get a room, not me, and probably with the top entry—Bacalhoa Moscatel de Su Setubal, 1998, from Portugal.
Meanwhile, I remain a sucker for structured muscats from Alsace, that slice of Eastern France with calcerous marl in their dirt—that means a lot of body, evolving flavors and texture. I like a wine that’s been around the block a time or two; a wine with a little meat on the bones. So sue me.
Tonight I’m going to turn down the lights, put on a Captain and Tennille 8-track, pop an ’05 Zind Humbrecht and sip away. And score big—I’ve got the Midas touch.
Michele Chiarolo, Nivole, Moscato d’Asti, 2010, about $12 (half-bottle): Fragrant, slightly frothy and low in alcohol. Nivole means ‘clouds’ in Piedmontese, and it’s airy enough to deserve the name. Scented with peach and honeycomb, there’s acid aplenty to keep it refreshing, if simple.
Golan Heights Winery, Moscato, Galilee, 2010, about $15: Make wine, not war: This kosher kontribution to the kategory is light, aromatic, slightly frizzante and lyrical with lychee and lemon. Drink up, though: this wine is meant to be drunk within a year or so of harvest, and the Man from Galilee does not appear to be on track to borrow some water and make more.
Quady Elysium, Black Muscat, California, about $20: A love child of schiava grossa and muscat of Alexandria, black muscat retains the rose perfume and orange blossom scents of its caucasian half-sister with added oomph in the badonkadonk. Sweet, purplish-red and almost syrupy in texture, it’s jammed with raspberry and black cherry flavors. This one won a gold medal at the Houston Livestock Show; that alone should be reason to try it.
Domaine Zind Humbrecht Muscat, Grand Cru Goldert, Alsace, 2005, about $45: Arguably the top producer in Alsace, Zind Humbrecht produces superlatives in every category; this, like most of their wines, is age-worthy—for the drinker who wants a little experience in their glass. Striking minerality settles in with powerful aromatics; jasmine, yellow hay, and honeyed peach.