Muscat

Muscat is an ancient grape poised for new attention from adventurous wine lovers looking for a fragrant wine that comes in a wide range of styles from dry to sweet.

Chicago-area retailers have seen the wine growing in popularity. Tracy Lewis Liang, wine and spirits director at Treasure Island Foods stores, has noticed a recent uptick in sales. She said the renewed interest is because people are getting over the idea that fruity means sweet and unsophisticated.

“Muscat is one of those grapes like riesling and chenin blanc that can make any style of wine from bubblies to dry dinner wines to wonderful dessert wines,” she said.

Hundreds of muscat varieties are grown for winemaking or for table grapes or raisins. Two of the top varieties are muscat a petits grains, used for dry Alsatian wines, and the sweet muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, according to “The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia.”

“This grape is like Silly Putty,” said Efrain Madrigal, wine director of Sam’s Wines & Spirits. “You can make it into any style of wine you want … I think its versatility is why it continues to captivate winemakers.”

Grown around the world, from Europe to Australia to California to North Africa, muscats share a distinct perfume.

“From flowery and dry versions in Austria and Alsace to nectarlike potions from California and Australia, aromatics is the key,” said Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales for Binny’s Beverage Depot stores. “Nothing else is so much like pure grape essence, like biting into the ripest grapes right off the vine. That’s why muscat has, and always will have, its own place in the wine world.”

Don’t think you’ve ever had muscat? Well, sparkling Asti (once known as Asti spumante) is made from muscat, as is its fizzy cousin, moscato d’Asti. Today, Asti is one of the most popular Italian wines made.

Tom Benezra of Sal’s Beverage World theorizes the newfound attention to muscat wines is because there’s increased interest in sparkling wines.

“Moscato d’Asti is showing the greatest increase in part because of its frizzante style,” he said. “With its obvious grapy flavors, gentle bubbles and sweet finish, the wine is an easy crowd pleaser. Moscato d’Asti pairs well with most desserts and its unusually low alcohol, typically 5 to 7 percent, makes it an ideal after-dinner cocktail.”

Janel Syron, sommelier at WineStyles Belmont in Chicago, said that muscats, like rieslings, appeal especially to wine newbies because they’re generally sweeter in style and fit in with the sweeter drinks most Americans are used to.

“They are great wines to help ease you into wine drinking without intimidating you,” she said.

Natalie MacLean, the Canadian-based wine writer and editor of an online wine newsletter (nataliemaclean.com), believes the dryer styles are catching on fast because they pair well with seafood, poultry, pork and veal.

“Muscat is one of the great underrated wines in the world,” she said. “Buy it now while it’s still reasonably priced.”

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Sweet wins the day

Six muscats from around the world, three dry and three rather sweet, were the focus of this blind tasting. Panelists clearly preferred the sweeter styles, which had a vibrant fullness the drier muscats lacked.

2006 Martin & Weyrich Moscato Allegro

Made in the style of an Italian moscato d’Asti, this California wine had an elegant spark thanks to lots of acidity. Slightly spritzy, the wine smelled of honey and pears. Serve with apple tart, strawberry shortcake.

(3 corkscrews) $12

2007 Benessere Muscat di Canelli Frizzante

The nose of this just-released wine from California’s Napa Valley had a touch of rubbery funk nestled in among the floral scents. The wine’s mild fizziness helps cut the sweetness. Serve with roast chicken stuffed with dried apricots, poached pears or triple-cream cheeses.

(3 corkscrews) $25

2006 St. Supery Moscato

From California, this last of the sweeter muscats has plenty of grape flavor and a soft yet sugary finish. The wine smelled of honeyed cooked fruit.

(2 corkscrews) $17

2003 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Herrenweg de Turckheim Muscat

From France’s Alsace region, this dry wine offered plenty of minerals, a pronounced flavor of grapes and violets and a sweet honeyed aroma. Serve with shrimp de Jonghe, sauteed scallops, Virginia ham.

(2 corkscrews) $40

2004 Vignalta Sirio Muscat

From Italy’s Veneto region, a dry muscat with notes of washed stone, apples and even a whiff or two of salami. Tart finish. Serve with melon and prosciutto, charcuterie, roast chicken.

(2 corkscrews) $14

2003 Jean Leon Terrasola

Made of 85 percent muscat, 10 percent parellada and 5 percent gewurztraminer, this Spanish blend had a petroleum-like nose and taste. Notes of stone and pear, very tangy aftertaste. Serve with flounder in beurre blanc sauce, poached pears.

(2 corkscrews) $16

Sources: These wines may or may not be in stock at your local store; inquire first. At least one of these wines was found at these stores: Binny’s Beverage Depot, Sal’s Beverage World, Sam’s Wines & Spirits, Artisan Cellars, Fine Wine Brokers, Fox & Obel, Treasure Island Foods, WineStyles Belmont, Cabernet & Co. in Glen Ellyn, DiCarlo Fine Wine & Spirits in Mundelein, Dobby’s World Wide Wine & Liquors in Palatine, WineStyles in Palatine, WineStyles in Woodridge. Prices may vary from store to store. Prices are rounded off.

Tampa Bay Online also published this on March 10, 2008.

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