By Celia Strong
Don’t get scared. Too scared, anyhow. I know most of us don’t like to get into sweet wines. But there are times when we need to look at what we usually think of as sweeter style wines, and it turns out they aren’t. Which pretty much tells you when a Moscato is not a Moscato.
To start our lesson this week, I suppose we can get right into our grape – Muscat. There! See? Already, not a Moscato. The Muscat family of grapes has over two hundred grapes in it. Yikes. Ampelographers say that Muscat is probably the oldest domesticated grape variety. There are theories that the origins of Muscat go back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, 3,000 to 1,000 BC. “A” also theories that the origins of this variety date it at 800 to 600 BC, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Truth is, there is no actual proof to any date of origin. Written records, from Columella and Pliny the Elder, describe some “Muscat-like” grapes that made sweet wines that the bees were attracted to, but writing is not proving.
For that, we have to go to the first documented mention of the grape from an English Franciscan scholar, Bartholomeus Anglicus, in the early thirteenth century. It’s interesting that of the two hundred grapes with “muscat,” or synonyms, in their name, most of them are not closely related to each other. Grapes in the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains family and in the Muscat Alexandria family are more closely related to each other than other Muscats. Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Muscat Alexandria have been crossed with each other, and have produced at least fourteen different grapes. Five of these “offspring” are only grown in South America. (Most notable of these is the Torrontes grape in Argentina.) Nine are still grown in Italy. Muscat of Alexandria has been crossed with a German/Italian variety, Trollinger, that has produced some of the Malvasia grapes. We may not all jump for joy at the idea of a Moscato wine, but we do have to give the grape its due for being so prolific. And, we have to guess that they can’t all be making sweeter style wines. Which is part of what we’re learning today. Read on.
Our unavailability of specific dates for the origin of the Muscat grape means we also are not sure where its name came from. Again, there are many theories. The most common one is that the name came from the Persian word “muchk.” (No, not close to “schmuck.”) Similar words exist in Greek (“moskos”), Latin (“moskos”) and French (“musc”). One theory, that we hear a lot of, is based on the Italian word “mosca” which means “fly.” Like a buzzing around fly, not fly like a bird. This theory, at least, takes into account the sweet aromas and grape sugars, natural to this variety. Both things that would naturally attract flies. (And, really, doesn’t a wine made from a grape that was named after flies just sound delicious? But, wait. We must behave.) Now, here we are with several hundred Muscat grapes. They can range in color from white to pink to almost black. All the wines from all the Muscat grapes tend to have floral notes and grapey flavors. The grapiness comes from a large number of monoterpenes in the grapes. More monteroenes, more grapey flavors.
In France, where our wine is from this week, Muscat is known as Muscat Blanc. It is a member of the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains family. This variety is responsible for most of the country’s “vin doux naturels” wines. (I know, sweet wines again.) There is actually a Muscats du Monde (Muscats of the World) competition, where wines that are dry, sweet and sparkling are all submitted. Because of this grape’s affinity for the soil and climate around the Mediterranean, this is where much of it is grown. It has, however, adapted itself to other regions, including much cooler Alsace. Generally, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains buds early, but ripens late. It is a moderately vigorous vine, but its best wines come from controlled growth. Pruning, fewer grapes left on the vines, gives the wines better acidity. This matters to us because dry wines need more acidity. Slower ripening also encourages more acidity. So vineyard location on hillsides with eastern exposures, less afternoon hot sun, and good breezes to cool off the grapes are important, too. Most dry Muscat wines are best when only a year or two old. They have heady aromas that include rosewood and litchi nuts and grapefruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice and exotic tropical fruit flavors. All blended in with hints of jasmine, lemongrass and verbena.
Our Muscat is from Fortant. This company has been growing grapes and making wines in southern France for four generations. The Skali family, who owns Fortant, came from Algeria. A visit to California, in 1982, gave them an idea for varietally labeled wines from France. Today, they have a great reputation for true-to-their-variety wines at value prices. For our Muscat, the vines are planted along the Mediterranean coast. The soil here is limestone and alluvial deposits, great drainage for roots. The grapes are harvested at night, keeping them fresh and gently pressed after six hours of skin contact. Fermentation is done at low temperatures which give the finished wine more finesse. “Sur lie” aging lasts three months. The Fortant Muscat is 100% Muscat with thirteen percent alcohol. For sure, this is a dry wine. Phew! It is a saffron yellow shade, with litchi and rose aromas, citrus and floral and white tea flavors, a round texture in your mouth, and a long, long finish. For the lucky few, we got a chance to taste this wine this week, already. With softshell crabs. Which hints at what kinds of foods go well here – light shellfish, Asian flavors, sushi, seafood salads, Indian and Mexican flavors. And more. Definitely, a dry Muscat. So not a Moscato at all. Relieved? For $9.99. Enjoy.