November 25, 2014 3 Comments
It is often said that Muscat is an ancient grape, known to antiquity since perhaps 3,000 BC. It is just as often claimed that Muscat was one of the grapes described by Pliny the Elder and his contemporaries as Apiane, named due to the fact that they were so sweet as to attract bees (api in Latin). It has even been claimed that Muscat was the original vinifera grape from which all others sprang forth – heck, I’ve even mentioned that in some of my classes.
But all of this talk is, alas, just talk, and not backed up by any actual history or botanical facts. It may be true – but then again, it may just be the stuff of legends.
It cannot be denied, however, that Muscat is an old grape. With at least 200 grapes going by the name Muscat Something, and dozens more showing the grapey-musty aroma characteristic of the family, we know that Muscat has been swimming in the grape gene pool for at least 2,000 years.
A student of mine recently asked me to give her a list of the main members of the Muscat family. At first I thought such a task would take hours, but determined to “keep it simple” – I came up with the following descriptions of some of the leading members of the Muscat extended family:
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains: The main Muscat – that is, the grape that gets the prize for consistently producing the highest-quality wines and the one that is believed (by actual botanists) to be the Muscat from which the other Muscats sprung is Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. This grape has a vast number of synonyms, most of which are really just translations, such as Muscatel, Moscatel, Frontignac, Muskateller, Moscato, Moshcato, and Muscat Canelli. This is the majority grape that is used in the vins doux naturels of southern France, including Muscat de Rivesaltes, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, and the similar wines of Frontignan, Mireval, and Saint-Jean-de-Minervois. In Italy, this grape appears as the star of Asti and Moscato d’Asti. In Greece, she is known as Muscat of Patras, Samos, and many other, more-difficult-to-pronounce wines.
Muscat of Alexandria: Another ancient variety, considered to be very close to the top of the Muscat food chain, as a likely cross between an Italian grape known as Axina de Tres Bias and Mother Muscat (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). This grape is considered to be somewhat inferior to Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, and is often used to produce very sweet wines with orange or orange-flower aromas. Muscat of Alexandria (which, by the way, has no proven connection to the ancient city of the same name) is used as a minor grape in the sweet Muscat-based wines of southern France. In Italy, the variety is far more likely to be used as table grapes as opposed to wine, except in on the island of Pantelleria, where it is much beloved as the star of Passito de Pantelleria. Much of Spain’s Moscatel is Muscat of Alexandria, where it is used in Sherry, Málaga, and the surrounding areas for many styles of wine, including the sweet and fortified wines of the region. Muscat of Alexandria is also the star of Portugal’s Moscatel de Setúbal, and, as Hanepoot, is used in the fortified wines and brandies of South Africa.
Muscat Fleur d’Oranger: Actually a cross between Chasselas and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains; often known as Orange Muscat. California, particularly the warmer regions, grows a good deal of Orange Muscat, where it makes its way into sweet wines such as Quady’s brightly-packaged Essencia and Electra. Delightful Orange Muscats are made in Washington State, Canada, and Texas as well. In Italy, Moscato Fior d’Arancio in the Veneto’s Colli Euganei is made with Orange Muscat, and the grape makes its way into many of Australia’s sweet wines as well.
Muscat Ottonel: Thought to be a Chasselas X Muscat de Saumur cross, native to the Loire. Used for both dry and sweet wines, mainly in Alsace, where it may be bottled as Muscat d’Alsace. Austria’s Neusiedlersee and Neusiedlersee-Hügelland are known for sweet, botrytis-affected wines produced using Muscat Ottonel (here known as “Muskat Ottonel”). Hungary uses the grapes, mainly as blending partners, in both sweet and dry wines. Other plantings are found throughout eastern Europe, including in Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Russia, and the Czech Republic.
Muscat of Hamburg: Also known as Black Muscat or Zibibbo Nero. The origin of the grape is unclear, although there is an excellent story about an Englishman named Mr. Seward Snow who created the grape by crossing Black Hamburg (Schiava Grosso) grapes with Muscat of Alexandria, thus producing Muscat of Hamburg as a “grandchild” of Mother Muscat (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). Throughout the world, Muscat of Hamburg is used in a scattering of sweet red wines, and widely grown to be used as red table grapes. It is grown extensively in California’s Central Valley, where it is used to produce Quady’s sweet, dark dessert wine known as Elysium.
As previously mentioned, these are just the main branches of the 200+ members of the Muscat Family tree. Muscat is primarily known for sweet, dessert, and fortified wines, but we can’t forget the fact that Muscat is often made into dry wines (known for their hauntingly “funky” aromas of must, flowers, and fruit), as well as its widespread use in table grapes and raisins! For those of you practicing blind tasting, it is widely accepted that while all wine is made from grapes (well, at least the wines that might show up at a blind tasting), Muscat-based wines are among the few and far between that actually have “grapey” aromas in the finished wine. Try it and see!
The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…. firstname.lastname@example.org