Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Wine Tip: The Maligned Muscats

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from author John Hailman’s book The Search for Good Wine which will be available for purchase September 2014 from the University of Mississippi Press. This particular chapter was written on January 31, 1974.
Young, quick-fermented “new,Beaujolais is terribly in. Sweet wines are pretty much out, as are most Portuguese wines except roses and Port, which is now staging quite a comeback.

2005-Monterey-Orange-Muscat
Muscat white wine

Such fads and fashions in wine drinking usually begin for arbitrary reasons: transportation problems, wars, personal tastes of famous people, and often have little to do with the relative qualities of the wines. Once they catch on, some last a few months, others persist for generations.
Like politicians and deodorants, wines also suffer from image problems, the most dramatic current example being the wines made from the muscat grape. Once universally considered among the world’s finest, and still very popular in Mediterranean countries, muscats today are the lepers of the American wine world, mainly for reasons unrelated to their often excellent quality.
Vermouth, Asti Spumante and Sauternes are all made wholly or partly from muscat grapes but not one reveals it. Why? To avoid association with their infamous counsin, Muscatel, the wino’s wine, the beverage par excellence of skid row. Good muscats dare not mention their family origins for fear the specter of muscatel will drive away their American customers. Yet this very reticence has caused people here to assume that all muscat wines must be bad.
It was not always thus. Shakespeare praised muscats often. Thomas Jefferson and his guests drank many a barrel of fine French, Italian and Portuguese muscats, most of which are still produced today in the same locations but are rarely imported here for lack of demand.
Recently, however, a slight change has appeared here. Admirers of the muscat have begun to emerge from hiding and are cautiously praising good muscat wines they’ve drunk, especially certain ones made in California. Since a hallmark of old-fashioned Americanism is support for underdogs, muscats may even be about ready for a mild comeback.
Let it be clear that the muscat is not related to Muscadet, a totally different grape grown in the Loire Valley ofFranee which produces a good dry white wine. Confusion of the two is common because of the similar spelling. Recently a national wine magazine even featured an article in which someone described a Muscadet as having a muscat aroma.
Nor is muscat at all related to muscadine, the homemade wine of generations of Southern grannies. Muscat is of the European species vitis vinifera, like the Cabernets and the Riesling.
Muscadine is of the native American species vitis rotundifolia, and more closely related to the old Young, quick-fermented “new,Beaujolais is terribly in. Sweet wines are pretty much out, as are most Portuguese wines except roses and Port, which is now staging quite a comeback.
Such fads and fashions in wine drinking usually begin for arbitrary reasons: transportation problems, wars, personal tastes of famous people, and often have little to do with the relative qualities of the wines. Once they catch on, some last a few months, others persist for generations.
Like politicians and deodorants, wines also suffer from image problems, the most dramatic current example being the wines made from the muscat grape. Once universally considered among the world’s finest, and still very popular in Mediterranean countries, muscats today are the lepers of the American wine world, mainly for reasons unrelated to their often excellent quality.
Vermouth, Asti Spumante and Sauternes are all made wholly or partly from muscat grapes but not one reveals it. Why? To avoid association with their infamous counsin, Muscatel, the wino’s wine, the beverage par excellence of skid row. Good muscats dare not mention their family origins for fear the specter of muscatel will drive away their American customers. Yet this very reticence has caused people here to assume that all muscat wines must be bad.
It was not always thus. Shakespeare praised muscats often. Thomas Jefferson and his guests drank many a barrel of fine French, Italian and Portuguese muscats, most of which are still produced today in the same locations but are rarely imported here for lack of demand.
Recently, however, a slight change has appeared here. Admirers of the muscat have begun to emerge from hiding and are cautiously praising good muscat wines they’ve drunk, especially certain ones made in California. Since a hallmark of old-fashioned Americanism is support for underdogs, muscats may even be about ready for a mild comeback.
Let it be clear that the muscat is not related to Muscadet, a totally different grape grown in the Loire Valley ofFranee which produces a good dry white wine. Confusion of the two is common because of the similar spelling. Recently a national wine magazine even featured an article in which someone described a Muscadet as having a muscat aroma.
Nor is muscat at all related to muscadine, the homemade wine of generations of Southern grannies. Muscat is of the European species vitis vinifera, like the Cabernets and the Riesling.
Muscadine is of the native American species vitis rotundifolia, and more closely related to the old truly evil days, and even that fall was for understandable historical reasons. Here, following the lifting of Prohibition, the many acres of coarser muscat varieties grown for eating and raisin-making in California were hastily and unwisely pressed into cheap wine, fortified with even cheaper brandy, and sold as muscatel. These bad wines were and still are 20 per cent alcohol, and amount to nothing but a cheap intoxicant. Their popularity on skid row has nearly ruined the name of all the good wines made from the Muscat grape, which has become a sort of closet varietal.
Today, with the rise of a new generation of moderate and discriminating drinkers of quality European and American wines, including .good sweet wines in their place, it is past time for a revival of respect for well-made muscats in this country, which now makes some of the best and most unusual ones in the world from finer European grape varieties.
The muscat (pronounced “musket”) family of grapes was brought to Europe from the Middle East by returning Cmsaders. The name is from the Persian word meaning “strong-scented,” and obviously related to our word musk. It is also the name for the capital of the lovely Gulf country Oman, named for the grapes once shipped through its port, which is direcdy across from Persia (now called Iran). Since it came west, growers have bred new muscat strains and re-spelled its name to suit their own languages. In Italy it is moscato, in France muscadelle and muscat dore, in Spain and Portugal moscatel, and in Easter Europe muscat ottonel.
California’s best muscat wine, made from an Italian strain, is the Moscato di Canelli of Charles Krug winery in the Napa Valley, which the State Department has chosen to be served at American embassies abroad. It is a wine to be chauvinistic about, on hand and expensive in most Washington wine shops. It has a light straw-yellow color and an aroma that is surprising: fresh, light and a litde flowery, definitely reminiscent of a GewuT:(!raminer or an Altatian Riesling. Most botdes have a slight sparkle that is pleasandy suited to the taste, which is not dry yet no sweeter than a German spatlese. It may be served with the same dishes as a good Moselle, but my own preference is to drink it by itself, cool, as you would a good German Riesling or Portuguese vinho verde.
Key to the success of Moscato di Canelli is judicious blending of moJ·cato with milder white wines to tone down the excessive muscat aroma and sweetness. Lack of such blending was no doubt a major cause for the current unpopularity of muscats in the United States.
Robert Mondavi winery also makes a very fine muscat called Moscato d’Oro, which is nearly identical in quality and character to the Canelli except that it is a bit darker and lacks the sparkle. Although not commercially available in Washington this year, it is one to look for in the future. As more people ask for it, perhaps its arrival will be hastened; and as demand and production increase perhaps price will go down.
Both Louis Martini and Bargetto wineries in California produce a sparkling, semi-sweet muscat more like Asti Spumante. Its low alcohol content (8 per cent) and unstable condition cause it to lose its sparkle and freshness easily, so it must be kept refrigerated at all times.
Retailers dislike carrying Moscato Amabile because it spoils so easily and it does not travel well but it is still sometimes available and cheap. A California muscat which is always available is the Christian Brothers’ Chateau LaSaile, which is very sweet and too much on its way to being muscatel.
Its history is interesting. Christian Brothers once tired to sell it as a miscast, but it was total failure on the market, so they gave it a french name and it quickly became their best-selling wine. About the kindest thing that can be said for it is that it does not have any brandy in it.
Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) makes a desert wine from the best French muscat called Muscat de Frontignan. It has brandy added, like the French and is not much to my taste, but those who like French Frontignan generally like it, which includes wine lover Thomas Jefferson.
The other American muscat of note is the Muscat Ottonel made by Dr. Constantin Frank along Lake Keuka in New York state. Frank a Russian of German descent, is of course best known for his rieslings, which at their best are to me the finest American white wines made. They are at last available again in Washington for the cost of a good mosel, and generally worth it. Franks Muscat Ottonel, however, may be another story. Made from the predominant muscat strain of Russia and Eastern Europe, this wine is fortified and strong, through not as sweet as most. It is something of an acquired taste. Best muscat ottonel wine by far now available in Washington is the excellent Muifatlar from Romania, a light-gold very fine dessert wine somewhat less sweet than Sauternes.
An unusual French sparkling wine and good champagne substitute here is Golden Guiena, a Lorie Valley muscat made more in the Italian tradition of sparkling muscats than the French tradition of heavy dessert wines. It is good bubbly and generally lighter and better than most Asti Spumanties. Although the importer had intended to label it “sparkling muscat,” Treasury Representatives suggested it would be more “proper” to change the label so as not to show it was a muscat. The front label now says Golden Guiena, but in fine print the back label still honesty proclaims it to be a muscat.
Sparkling muscats are made in nearly province of Italy. Asti Spumante, the best-known, stands somewhere in the wine hierarchy considerably above Cold Duck but well below Champagne.
In Spain and southern France a favorite before-dinner drink is light Spanish muscatel served with a dish of green olives. Although some sweet aperitifs are too heavy to be really good appetizers, this one is very pleasant outdoors on summer evenings. It is also a favorite in Portugal, Greece and around the Mediterranean, so it must have something going for it.
Naturally sweet muscats were once prized as healthful tonics much like Hungarian Tokay. Today only a handful remain, but if you need a sweet wine for a maiden aunt who is a little off her elderberry, these are the thing. It is ironic to think that Falstaff once drank these wines thinking them manly and heroic.
From the island of Cyprus comes Commandaria, a muscat, first made by the crusading Knights Templar. A dark-brown dessert wine with a caramel taste, Commandaria can be pleasant on occasion with pastries. It comes in squat, dark-brown bottles.
Constantia, once the most famous dessert wine of South Africa and a tremendous favorite in England, is still made by the Paarl Cooperative and can be found here for the price of an inexpensive port. A similar wine from Spain which is a blend of muscat and the Pedro Ximenes grape, a vital ingredient of oloroso sherries and Malaga, is the Pedro Domecq Vina No. 25.
In 1824 Daniel Webster visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and noted that they drank together some fine «Samian” wine. Today Muscat ofSamos made by a growers’ cooperative on that Greek island may still be found in Washington. This unique “straw wine” is so called because the grapes from which it is made are laid in the sun on straw mats after picking. The partly-dried grapes make a thicker, heavier wine with a raisiny taste which when well-chilled can be surprisingly good with Greek or Arab pastries, with which only a very sweet wine is drinkable.
Even in South America the muscat persists. In Argentina, Chile and Peru a brandy called
Pisco is produced from muscat grapes and is a popular drink with North American travelers returnin£ from Machu Pichu. Marketed in Washington as Inca Pisco, a bottle of it is the most expensive muscat in town.
hailman-150x150John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

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