Wines of the Month


Multifaceted Muscat

Sweet wines seem to have fallen out of favor these days, as many people have been turned off by a few greedy winemakers who use liberal doses of sugar to hide the flaws in their cheap industrial products. And the wine press has somewhat overzealously emphasized the point that high-quality wines are most often vinified dry, often neglecting to mention the existence of plenty of vile dry wines, or the many wonderful semi-sweet and sweet wines which are produced all over the world.

As a fan of dessert wines, I hope to help eliminate some of the biases against these wines. Sure, sugar can be used as a mask for flaws, but it is also an integral part of some of the world's greatest wines, such as Sauternes, Port and Tokaji, just to name a few. One of the grapes which I feel has fallen victim to this anti-sweet bias is the Muscat, a wonderfully versatile grape which produces some amazing examples of sweet wines.

There are several varieties of Muscat, of which Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is generally considered to be the best for wine, and, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, may actually be the oldest known wine grape variety. Other, somewhat less distinguished, varieties include Muscat Ottonel, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Hamburg. The Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains berries are small, as you might deduce from the name. However, contrary to the name, the grapes are not always white (or the green to gold shades which pass for "white" in the vinous world); several different colors exist, including red, pink, black and brown. Known for the strongly perfumed, floral aromas of its wines, Muscat aromas are often described using words such as "orange blossom" and "rose petal". The Muscat Blanc grape goes by many names in different areas, and is vinified in styles ranging from bone dry (e.g. Muscat d'Alsace), to semi-sweet with low alcohol (e.g. Moscato d'Asti), to light sweet fortified wines (e.g. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise), to darker, heavier, aged fortified wines (e.g. Australian Liqueur Muscat and a few Sherries).

This month's wines sample a few different styles from the Muscat spectrum, from a fresh and lightly sweet charmer, to a heavier, aged, fortified style of wine. However, even with the disparity of styles, they all share the Muscat floral character, and most importantly they're also fun to drink!

Saracco Moscato d'Asti Piedmont '97 -- A fun, medium sweet, semi-sparkling wine which would go well with fruit, light desserts, or even as an aperitif. The lighter side of Muscat comes out nicely in this wine, though it isn't as delicate as many Moscato d'Asti wines. Light yellow color with a few bubbles. Typical Muscat floral orange-blossom nose along with some fresh peaches. A good range of flavors, with some orange-blossom, peach and golden delicious apple along with hints of coconut. Good acidity for this type of wine, with a pleasant, peach, apple and coconut finish. The only quibble is that it may be lightly lacking in concentration, but it's still a nice quaffer, especially on a warm day. In general, I have had excellent luck just picking bottles of Moscato d'Asti off the shelf randomly, as most which are available, at least in the Boston area, are of relatively high quality. Note, however, that "Moscato d'Asti" is NOT the same as the often much lower quality "Asti Spumante".

Quady Elysium California '94 -- Ok, first of all, I should note that most people drink this wine when released. So why am I drinking this bottle several years later? Well, partly because I wanted to see what would happen to a wine that everyone said should be drunk within a year, and partly because it was hiding behind another bottle, so I just didn't notice it for a while. In its youth, the '94 was, in my opinion, one of the best vintages for this wine, with an intense rose-petal character, just enough acidity, and a little tannin, too. This wine is made from a dark-skinned mutation of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, known as "Black Muscat". The nose retains a bit of the rose-petal character from its youth, along with some orange blossom, but is much less expressive. Still has plenty of plum, cherry-candy and rose flavors. Fat, but not quite flabby, but those who like a strong acidic backbone may not like this as much as I did. I can only describe the finish as "adult cherry Kool-Aid", but it also has some tannic grip in back. Not as compelling as when it was young, but a pretty good drink now, and certainly interesting. With current releases at less than $10 for a half-bottle, it's still a good value.

Emilio Lustau Muscat Solera Reserva Superior Emilin Sherry NV -- The brownish color fits the intense nose of toffee, caramel and spices, along with a definite Muscat floral orange-blossom character. Also has a bit of an oxidized Sherry aroma. Very complex in the mouth, with coffee, toffee and rose-petal flavors. Some oxidation, as is typical for sherry, but less than in many producers wines. Very sweet, and I found myself wishing for just a little more acidity. Finishes long and sweet with toffee and some floral flavors seemingly lingering forever. While I don't like the style as much as the less-oxidized Australian Liqueur Muscats, which are similar in body and sweetness, this wine is still a very good drink, and an amazing deal at around $13 per bottle.

As always, comments on these wines are welcome.

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Copyright 1999 by Marcel Lachenmann.