Muscat, Moscatel, Moscato. French, Spanish and Italian names for a grape that historically has been famous for one thing; sweet wine! You may recognise some of the most famous names associated with this style; Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Vin de Constance and Rutherglen. But, the name Muscat is actually given to a family of over 200 different grapes (some unrelated) that tend to share highly aromatic characteristics and grape-like flavours (yes, a grape that tastes like grapes!). Many wine drinkers can find these intense, floral aromas overpowering and when you consider that sweet wine has been out of fashion for decades (Nicki Minaj’s winemaking preferences aside), Muscat's future seemed uncertain. But in recent years, dry expressions of the grape have become much more common. Some of our favourite natural winemakers have transformed the grape's reputation and championed its versatility through winemaking techniques such as maceration (skin-contact) and blending.
The most famous and reputable member of the Muscat family is Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains, which is thought to have originated in Greece or Italy but one of its earliest recorded mentions dates back to 1394 with the description ‘vin Muscat de Claira’, Claira being a small village in Roussillon, southern France. Just 10 minutes away in the village of Rivesaltes, the Mataburro winery has been producing an incredible rosé called Mura Mura, where juicy red fruit from Grenache and Merlot grapes combines majestically with the floral character of Muscat. I asked winemaker Laurent how this ingenious idea came about and he explained how it’s a nod to the winemaking history of the place he calls home. Muscat d’Alexandrie, a grape generally seen as inferior to Blanc a Petit Grains, had become the dominant family member in the region thanks to its ability to create a stickier, more pungent sweet wine. But as this style fell out of fashion, winemakers such as Laurent turned back to the more delicate and sophisticated nature of Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains to use in blending. It’s inspiring to see a winemaker pay homage to a deep tradition and find a new way to harness the grape’s attributes. He points out that Muscat’s characteristics are “special and original” and not easy to come by in other varieties and when used in a subtle manner, the real qualities shine through.
These thoughts are echoed by Diego Losada, the man behind Bodega La Senda in Bierzo, northern Spain. He recently released his first wine made from Moscatel de Grano Menudo as it’s known over the border, (a 50/50 blend with another variety that he thinks is Malvasia) which he named Har Megiddo. This powerful wine underwent 130 days of skin contact which has become a popular technique for producing Muscat wines. The process rounds off some of the intense floral character and can instead produce notes of dried stone fruit and herbs as is the case with Diego’s wine. When I asked what made him want to work with this grape, he agreed with Laurent that the qualities of Muscat are hard to find elsewhere and he aimed to create something that reminded him of some of his favourite orange wines from Italy.
It might be hard to find a bigger fan of the grape than Nuria Renom over in Catalunya who uses Moscatel de Alejandria in no less than 8 blends as well as 2 single varietals. Despite its lesser reputation in the Muscat family, she calls it her “grape maravilla!” and I was intrigued to know how this love affair came about. “Like many things in life, Moscatel actually found me” she exclaims whilst telling a story of when she was making a Pet Nat with juice from the Macabeu grape. Things didn’t go to plan and the wine fermented fully before bottling, meaning that no fizz would be produced. She had the idea to add some Moscatel juice to kick start a second fermentation, “and La Mac Beu as we know it was born”. The more neutral flavours of Macabeu are complimented perfectly by the Moscatel to create a wine with tropical fruit flavours and subtle floral aromas.
Nuria previously worked at the famous Bar Brutal in Barcelona so she has first hand experience that when people hear the name, they expect a sweet wine, but it’s clear that she sees something more to this variety and wants to show everyone why. In 2016 there was a fire near the vineyard where her Moscatel was growing and it dried out the grapes and left a smokey flavour but she still saw potential and another creation, La Mosca 2016 came to fruition. Nuria always seems to see beauty in things that others overlook and for her, the technique of skin maceration is the way to really unlock the beauty of the grape.
This belief is shared by Franceso Pozzobon at Tenuta Foresto in Piedmont, north east Italy. He and his partner Pauline produce Favonio, a wine made from 100% Moscasto Bianco grapes that undergo 3 days of maceration before fermentation. He explains that without this process, the grape’s expression can sometimes be quite “trivial”. Like the other natural winemakers I spoke to, he is much more excited about skin contact combined with high acidity. Yet in his own region Francesco is one of the handful of producers making wine in this style whilst the majority make sweet, fizzy Moscato d’Asti. I asked if he has plans to experiment further with the grape and he told me he is making a deliberately oxidative Moscato in barrels that have not been topped up. This is a winemaking technique commonly used in the French region of Jura and more famously in the Sherry region of Spain. Bright and fresh fruit flavours tend to transform into nutty, mushroom-y and dried fruit notes. When you imagine what exciting effects this process could have on Moscato’s attributes, it seems the grape’s plot twist might not be over just yet.