Muscat: An Ancient Grape Variety that Has Made a Comeback
Muscat wines have the ideal combination of floral and grapey aromas. However, this grape variety has far more depth than its reputation suggests. Muscat is full of surprises, whether it’s sparkling wine, sweet wine, or dessert wine!
If we had to pick a grape variety as the central theme for a family tree, we’d prefer one with a long history and many descendants. This is precisely what makes this grape so intriguing – and perhaps a little vexing. Of course, it’s not just the strain itself that’s perplexing. Muscat produces a relatively simple wine that is easy to identify due to its distinctive musk, flower, and grape aromas. White Muscat is the world’s oldest grape variety and is an impressive example of how a grape variety, and its wine styles, can evolve over time.
Did You Know: Muscat is often sold as a table grape in some countries, and is considered one of the best wine grape varietals to eat fresh.
Here’s where things get complicated: there’s Moscato, Muscat Blanc à Petit Grain, Muscat of Alexandria, and Muscat Ottonel. Are they all connected? How can these grapes, all with similar names, be linked to Muscat? Muscat has all the elements for an exciting family history. With an unknown origin, it is an iconoclast, an impostor, and a black sheep.
The Origins of Muscat
Let’s begin with a definition. When we say Muscat, we mean the more than 200 grapes categorized under the Muscat umbrella. All clones, hybrids, and crossbreeds are included. There is no clear etymology for this grape variety because it is old, but several theories exist. Because the sugar in Muscat grapes attracts flies, some believe the name is derived from the Latin word for flies, “musca.” The name “musk” is also given to the variety’s aromatic scent: the word “musk” is derived from Persian (“muchk”) and Latin (“muscus”).
Historians are unsure where this grape variety originated because it has been cultivated in many parts of the world for a long time. Some believe that Muscat originated with the Egyptians and Persians around 1000 BC. Others think that they were cultivated and popularized by the Greeks and Romans around 600.
Fun Facts about Muscat
- The Muscat grape is one of the oldest grape varieties known to man. While grown extensively in Piedmont, Italy, this grape is grown in many wine regions and was most likely born in Egypt.
- Muscat grapes almost always have a strong, sweet floral aroma. When the wine is sweet it has low alcohol content (around 5-7 percent ABV), so Moscato is not considered a dessert wine despite the sweeter flavor.
- Moscato is made from the Muscat Canelli grape, a small grape with a significant impact in the world of winemaking. It goes by several names, including Muscat Blanc, Muscat d’Alsace, Muskateller, Moscatel, and the one that almost everyone knows, Moscato.
- While fully carbonated or sparkling versions of Muscat Canelli are available, the majority will be “semi-fizzy.” This method of presentation is known as frizzante in the wine world.
- Moscato (Muscat Canelli) wines are best known for their sweetness, but they also have orange blossom, peach, and nectarine flavors, plus hints of honeysuckle, vanilla, rose, jasmine, and caramel.
Muscat is a Fruit that can be Found All Over the World.
Because the Muscat family includes many grape varieties, its external characteristics vary. As a result, their skins can range from pink to nearly black. These adaptable grapes can be made into various styles, including dry wines, dessert wines, and ice wines. Compared to other well-known white grapes, Muscat has a low level of tartaric acid. As a result, their wines may not be suitable for long-term storage. Sweet wines are an exception.
Because this grape variety prefers warmth, it thrives best in a Mediterranean climate. Muscat is grown in astonishing quantities in many wine regions around the world. And under various guises. It is known as Moscatel in Spain, Moscato in Italy, Hanepoot in South Africa, and Gordo Blanco in Australia. Muscat grows well in sandy and loamy soils, but winemakers must be careful not to allow the vines to grow too much, which will cause the aromas in the grapes to be diluted.
The Many Sides of Muscat
If Muscat is a family tree, Yellow Muscat, or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains as it is known in France, is the matriarch. Noble, experienced, self-assured, but reserved, this grape variety’s wines will catch your attention because they exude Muscat’s popular classic grape aromas, often with notes of honeysuckle and orange blossom. The Yellow Muscat grape is the most ancient of the Muscat grapes.
In Italy, Asti is frequently produced from it under the name Moscato, which comes from the Piedmont city of the same name. If the only name on the label is Asti, it is a semi-dry sparkling wine. Moscato d’Asti, on the other hand, refers to sweet wines that are semi-sparkling. Moscato foamers are almost always vinified in stainless steel in Asti using the Charmat method. These Italian wines are among the best examples of Yellow Muscat in the world. And Piedmont is the world’s largest producer of Muscat. The Yellow Muscat is also used in France’s sweet Vins Doux Naturels and in Australia as a liqueur mussel.
Muscat has a colorful past in South Africa. Constantia, the first wine farm in the small region of the same name near Cape Town, sent Napoleon Bonaparte 1,126 liters of their sweet dessert wine made from Yellow Muscat every year from 1815 to 1821. Napoleon, legend has it, even asked for a glass of Constantia wine on his deathbed.
Critical Dates in Muscat’s History:
3000 BC: Muscat grape ancestors have been traced back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians of antiquity, according to theories (c. 3000-1000 BC).
1230: In his work De Proprietatibus Rerum, written between 1230 and 1240, English Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus wrote of wine made from Muscat grapes.
1372: Anglicus’ Latin work was translated into French, with Anglicus describing the wine as “vin extrait de raisins muscats.”
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On this day in wine history:
International Muscat Day is on May 9th.
Want to read more about Muscat? Try reading these books!
- Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012
- Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010
- The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019