There’s a great unwritten book about Muscat. Or Moscato. Or Muskateller. Or Moscatel, Hanepoot, Zibibbo, Muskotaly. Or a hundred other names, in a hundred other places all over the planet.
Though I am most drawn to wine grapes that come from one place and stay there, forever committed to expressing the essence of their small corner of the world exclusively, I’m fascinated by Muscat, the ancient child of Greek and Egyptian parents who has travelled the globe, setting up clans throughout Europe, Australia, South America and North America, South Africa and even Asia.
The story of Muscat is in many ways the story of wine, because it’s about history and place. I’d write this as yet unwritten book if I thought more than 12 people would read it. The problem is that while the story is terrific, the wines are somehow strange for folks.
I’m guessing this is due to Muscat’s reputation via the off-dry and sweet Moscatos. I adore those wines when they’re made well. The popularity of Moscato D’Asti and other sweet Moscatos is welcome, but its downside is a rush by larger wine-producing companies to churn it out in bulk, which has the inevitable effect on quality. Still, the good ones are so much fun and charming.
In one’s mind, then, Muscat gets relegated to categories of “sweet” and “unserious” and “summer.” Fine. But dry Muscat is not sweet, and certainly not unserious. It is bold, intricate and layered, gathering momentum from cavalcades of diverse flavors — summer and tropical fruits, flowers, candied citrus, preserved citrus, bitter herbs, Asian and North African spices, black teas and much more. This includes, definitely, musk.
Dry Muscat never vinifies in oak, one of the reasons it is splendid with food, just as rich, spicy Gruner Veltliners, dry Rieslings and Tokaj are. But compared to those northern European varietals, there’s something less stern in Muscat, a more pliant and easygoing vibe even when the wine is dry and profound. This allows it to be a terrific apertif wine, or hanging-out-with-no-food-in-sight wine as well.
If you think of wine on food terms, though, here are a few general parameters for orchestral pairings of meals and dry Muscat — voluptuous poultry and white meat dishes, especially veal; fish and shellfish with butter sauces; Asian stir-fries without too much heat; rich vegetarian meals that include root vegetables, nuts and peanuts and, beautifully, soft and semi-soft cheeses.
Buying advice is a touch risky. With dry Muscat, you’re going to have to take a few risks to find the style you like. That’s part of what I cherish about the grape: how a particular wine will present itself to you is somewhat up for grabs. But you’d be a fool not to take the journey because no other wines in the world taste the way these do. The following are a few selections, from various places on Earth, that are good places to start. If you enjoy any, get in touch and place an early-bird order on that book I want to write …
Alois Lageder Vogelmaier Moscato Giallo 2011, $20 (Wicked). This is simply extraordinary wine, from one of the great winemakers in one of the greatest wine regions anywhere, Alto Adige in northeastern Italy. Dry, elegant, large and herbal, it’s the Chablis of Muscats, stony and luxurious at once. Drinking it is some sort of vinous version of (my fantasy of) a brisk hike through the Dolomites: the kind that makes you breathe not just harder but deeper, smile not slyly but grandly, walk not just swiftly but surely.
Bonny Doon Muscat Ca’ Del Solo 2009, $16 (National). Though from the famed Ca’ Del Solo vineyards in the Monterey hills of California, this wine uses the same Moscato Giallo varietal that the Italian Lageder does. It’s a very different animal, however. Technically we’d have to call it off-dry, but don’t let that throw you: it’s drier than the majority of residual-sugar-loving Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays of Bonny Doon’s Napa neighbors to the north.
Here is where the great Indian spices come to a head — cinnamon, cardamom and coriander, as if mulled with lemon and orange juices and added to apricot nectar. The fullness of body and bold, avant-cuisine presentation on the palate are mesmerizing. The clarity of each flavor, though (which Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm attributes to improved soil quality after he converted the vineyard to biodynamics), is what sets this wine apart.
Botani Moscatel Seco de Malaga 2010, $21 (Pine State). Jorge Ordonez is known for importing massive, bold, often high-alcohol and super-concentrated wines from Spain. They’re often not for me. But I can’t resist this wine, a collaboration of Ordonez’s family and that of the legendary Austrian Alois Kracher. It comes from old vines in the Malaga mountains’ slate-rich soil, from the Malaga-specific variety of Muscat.
With a touch of residual sugar though it doesn’t come off sweet, it’s flat-out sexy wine. Not elegant sexy. Lusty, slippery, gettin’-down sexy. Kind of a two-night stand, where you wake up in the morning and still want to hang out together. Teeming with flavors of tropics and ripe flowers, orange, blood orange and toast, the Botani is for ardent, eager drinking.