Amazingly, the Muscat grape family includes in excess of 200 different grape varieities belonging to the Vitis vinifera species, being used in wine production (and even as raisins and table grapes) for centuries. Due to the wide range of grape varities in the family, they range in color from white (Muscat Ottonel) to yellow (Moscato Giallo) and even from pink (Moscato rosa del Trentino) to black (Muscat Hamburg) which means Muscat can produce a dazzling array of muscat wine.
In fact, the breadth and numerousness in the variety of Muscat suggest that it may be the oldest domesticated grape variety, with some winemakers beliving that most families within Vitis vinifera descended from the Muscat vareity.
Arguably the most notable member of the Muscat family are Muscat blanc à Petits Grains, the primary grape variety used in Italian sparkling Asti (Moscato Asti), from the Piedmont region, and in the production of many French fortified wines known as vin doux naturels. Muscat blanc à Petits Grains is also used in Australia and other regions in the new world in the production of Liquer Muscat.
While young and uncofortified Muscat blanc will often exhibit the quintessential Muscat “grapey” aroma, it will also often have accompanying citrus and peach notes. When the wine fortifies or ages, and especially during the barrel aging process, these notes strengthen to coffee, fruit cake, raisins and complex sugars such as toffee. Aged Muscat can often take on a far darker tone than expected, due to the oxidation.
Etymology of Muscat
Fascinatingly, due to the age of the Muscat grape family, and since the exact origins cannot be pinpointed, there are numerous theories pertaining to the etymology of the name “Muscat”, with explanations varying and little factual knowledge known.
The most common belief is that the name was originally dervived from the Persian muchk (in English, musk). However, in Italy, the Italian word for fly (mosca) could also be one origin, since the sweet aroma and high sugar levels present in Muscat grapes being a key factor in attrarting insects such as flies and fruit flies to the grapes.
Other less popular theories suggest that the Arabian country of Oman could have been the origin for the development of the cultivated grape, with the city of Muscat (on the coast of the Gulf of Oman) being the origin of the name. Alternatively, the Greek city of Moschato (southwest of Athens) could have also been the birthplace and namesake of the grape variety, with Moschato even being a common synonym in Greece for Muscat varieties of grape and wine.
The Muscat Wine Bouquet
Despite vast diversity in the Muscat family of grapes, one trait seen in almost every variety member is the characteristic floral and “grapey” aroma caused by high levels of concentrated monoterpenes in the grapes. More than 40 different monoterepenes have been discovered in Muscat grapes, and these are the same compounds which give other notably aromatic vareities like Riesling and Gewurztraminer their aromatic boquets.
These characteristic “musk” can be best observed in low alcoholic and light bodied wines such as the Moscato Asti, or other Muscats which are yet to have their bouquet influenced heavily by winemaking techniques such as oak aging, yeast autolysis, malolactic fermentation and fortification.
In other grape varities however, this common musky trait has caused confusion where varieties that are wholly unrelated to the Muscat family being erroneously mischaracterized as Muscat grapes (by naming and synonyms) due to their armoatic character. In Sauvignon blanc, Chasselas and Chardonnay grapes with a highly armomatic clonal mutation are often suxxied with Musqué, adding confusion to their origin with muscat wine.
Similarly, the Bordeaux wine Muscadelle (used for both sweet and dry wines) is often mistaken for a Muscat due to both it’s name and it’s similarly armoatic qualities. The same issue extends to Muscadet, which despite being made from a far more aromatically neutral grape is often mistakenly confused with Muscat due to the similarity of the name.
Muscat Wine Tasting Notes
Since Muscats span such a wide range of grape varieties, it is difficult to give overall tasting notes for the entire family, and you’ll often find far more success hunting down the specifics of the Muscat you have since they can vary wildly. This being said, almost all Muscats are classically characterized by their sweet and “grapey” aroma, exhibiting floral notes and a mild “musk”.
- Sparkling Moscato (either Moscato d’Asti or Asti Spumante) are graced with a DOCG classification (protected guarentee of origin) and will be highly aromatic and sweet, yet still balanced with light acidity and a clean, mineral, finish.
- Still Moscato is often drier to taste than the sparkling varieties, but exhibit sweeter and fruitier notes than their carbonated (or lightly carbonated) cousins
- Pink Moscato are very variable. Often considered to be more of a marketing gimmic than a legitimate taste-driven wine, you can still find some which are fantastic. Typically they will use majority Muscat grapes with a little Merlot to produce the expected ruby-pink color – tasting as the classic Moscato flavors with a touch of strawberry or red berries
- Red Moscato is far rarer, made from the Black Muscat, and displays notes of raspberry, rose, violets and more subtle notes of roasted black teas. The grape itself is a cross from Schiava and Muscat of Alexandria, and will often be found in the United States
- Moscato Dessert Wines are another famous example of the classic grape. Rich in caramel flavors and concentrated to exhibit greater sweetness, moscato dessert wines are an excellent exhibit of the true quality of the grape