Muscat — popular for 2,000 years

The Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans loved the muscat grape and spread it around southern Europe. From there it colonised the continent, and later the new world. Two millennia on, drinkers everywhere enjoy muscat in still, semi-sparkling, sparkling and fortified wines.

Its full name is muscat-a-petits-grains and its colour ranges from white to pink to brown. Its many Aussie aliases include frontignan, frontignac, fronti, muscat and brown muscat and it’s behind Italy’s delicate, sweet, low-alcohol Moscato d’Asti and Rutherglen’s fabulous fortified muscats.

In Australia we distinguish between muscat-blanc-a-petits-grains and muscat-rouge-a-petits-grains in our official viticultural figures (we harvested a mere 1,027 tonnes combined in 2007). And Rutherglen producers prescribe the rouge version as the only one permissible in the regional product.

But in Vines, Grapes and Wines Jancis Robinson writes that ‘The ampelographer Truel on his historic visit in 1976 demonstrated that all of the colour gradations, many of them encountered in the same vineyard in Australia, are in fact strains of muscat-a-petits-grains’.

It’s distinct from muscat of Alexandria (aka gordo muscat or muscat gordo blanco), a lesser but hardy beast that for years filled our sweeter wine casks and provided names like gordo moselle.

While gordo remains an important bulk-wine contributor, with sixty-three thousand tonnes harvested in 2006 and fifty thousand in the drought-stressed 2007 vintage, muscat-a-petits-grains became a declining niche player, partly a victim of anti-sweet-wine snobbery.

Between 2005 and 2006 the area of muscat-a-petits-grains in the ground declined from a meagre 529 hectares to 462 hectares.

However, the growing number of Asti-inspired Aussie moscatos hitting the market can only be possible if makers use muscat of Alexandria as well as the superior muscat-a-petits-grains.

Anecdotal evidence says supply of the real thing is tight this year. In Canberra last week, Wirra Wirra CEO, Andrew Kay, said the variety was hard to buy. He commented that last year Wirra Wirra released Mrs Wigley Moscato, its first shot at the style, as an experiment at cellar door where it outsold Church Block, the flagship red.

Cellar door was where moscato’s success began for Brown Brothers, too. In an interview for this column last year Ross Brown recounted the company’s continued success with sweeter styles.

Ross recalled a Winemakers Federation of Australia survey revealing that sixty per cent of wine drinkers enjoy a glass only occasionally because they don’t like the flavour. The revelation shocked the WFA but not Brown Brothers. For years they’d understood that wine is a peculiar taste, at odds with the sweeter things that we drink all the time – from mother’s milk to fruit juice.

Browns discovered decades ago a perennial demand for sweet table wines. They’ve catered for this at cellar door where small, experimental blends are later rolled out on a larger scale.

Ross said that consistently over the years sweet, fruity table wines – in a range of styles — have been the winners and remain the biggest selling styles at cellar door. The cellar door favourites, at the time of the interview, were the red Cienna and white Moscato (made from muscat of Alexandria) – both sweet wines weighing in at a modest 5.5 and 5 per cent alcohol respectively.

Brown Brothers success with Moscato was no doubt an inspiration to other winemakers. But it won’t have been the only factor.

Australian winemakers are familiar with the joyful simplicity of muscat, or fronti, as a table wine. It’s light, fresh, sweet and deliciously grapey.

The Italians, though, created the style that’s now catching on here, partly driven by winemakers aware of the Italian version, partly by the success of Brown Brothers and other makers and partly by drinkers themselves, many of whom will have tasted the original Moscato d’Asti.

In Italy they call the variety moscato blanco – the same grape they use in Asti Spumante. Though the frizzante, or semi-sparkling style, also originated in Asti, its region of production now includes the adjoining Cuneo and Alessandria districts.

The wine’s keynotes are a musky grapiness, low alcohol (about five per cent), sweetness, and a zingy acidity and light effervescence that offset the sweetness. They’re not luscious or sweet enough to be dessert wines. In fact, they’re light, fruity, and refreshing enough to enjoy as an aperitif. Any good liquor store will have one or two available.

The Aussie versions tend to be a little higher in alcohol than the Italians, and the best capture much of the interplay between sweet, musky fruitiness and zesty acidity. They’re delicious. But sip carefully, as some are just sweet and cloying.

Though not yet a mainstream style, moscatos are popping up everywhere from the Hunter to Yarra to Barossa and McLaren Vale and across to the west. Some are pink, others white.

Their success shows that we’ll embrace sweet table wines if they’re good. And to be good they must be made from suitable grape varieties. Muscat-a-petits-grains and even the lesser muscat of Alexandria have the credentials. They’ve been putting a smile on our faces for at least two thousand years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008