Summers were always spent in France and I used to love going to the local market. The best time was late summer, just before the start of term. This was the time of the first plums, greengages, quetsch and Mirabelle would come out. And of course, grapes. Table grapes came in all shapes, sizes and colours. Many people preferred the chasselas, big berries, juicy and refreshing. The wasps thought otherwise and hovered, noisily, over a display of cascading tiny, golden berries called muscat. And I agreed with the wasps! The smell was almost overwhelming, captivating with the scent of flowers, citrus, honey and peach.
Many years later, I found myself in Alsace during the vintage. I was in Riquewihr and walking up the cobbled Rue and was assailed by the similar smells. Hugel were just bringing in a trailer of freshly picked muscat.
More than one muscat
Most grape varieties don't smell or taste much like the finished wine. Muscat wines are an exception; its aroma and taste of fresh grapes persists from grape to young wine. There are about 200 varieties of muscat and they are grown across the Mediterranean world. The best known is called muscat à petits grains which usually gives the finest results. Muscat's ability to produce plenty of sugar has made them ideal candidates for sweet wine, often fortified but not always so. Moscatel de Setúbal is a fine example from Portugal. There are historic centres of production in Spain and the South of France. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is probably the best-known French example. Similar, sweet, fortified muscats are also made in Italy and Greece. The best-known Greek example comes from the gorgeous island of Samos. The ultimate in sweet, fortified muscats comes from Rutherglen in the southern Australian state of Victoria. These aged, deeply coloured muscats have an intensity of flavour like nothing else and are outstanding.
The region of Piedmont in Italy has another use for the muscat grape. Here, around the town of Asti, it is turned into a wonderfully fresh, grapy and sweet sparkling wine. Our Moscato d'Asti is for my money, one of the loveliest ways to end a dinner, maybe with a little fruit salad. And because the alcohol is so low and is usually stoppered using a normal cork, it attracts less duty and is a bargain.
The muscat grape has often been used as a parent in creating new varieties such as the aromatic, somewhat spicy Argentinian torrontés which has become popular of late. In Alsace a muscat crossing with chasselas called muscat ottonel produces very delicate wines, often blended with muscat à petits grains, or as it is known locally, muscat d'Alsace. The Pfalz, a northern extension of Alsace into Germany also produces fabulous dry style muscats. Very rarely in Alsace, muscat can be picked with noble rot to produce an exquisite nectar.
Making the most of muscat
Getting the best from the muscat grape, of whichever sort, is not easy as it can often make wines that taste coarse, even confected. To make matters worse, the grape is prone to disease and rot and needs handling with care.
Muscats are said not to age well but that is simply not true. The oxidised styles from Australia and Italy may age indefinitely. Jaboulet used to have a collection of old Muscat de Beaumes de Venise which are wonderful. And from a top vineyard site such as the Grand Cru Goldert in Alsace, dry muscat can keep for ten and twenty years developing great complexity and an aroma profile based on mint.
Appreciating muscat with food
Dry styles: a must with asparagus. Whether green or white asparagus, the combination is perfect. Muscat goes well with the delicate flavours of dim sum. Another favourite would be steamed scallops maybe with a sliver of ginger and a little coriander.
Sweet styles: Cheeses, especially blue cheese. Cheesecake and a good many puddings, especially fruit-based desserts. Moscato d'Asti with desserts centred around ice creams and sorbets works well for me.
As table grapes, muscat from various parts of the world can readily be found in supermarkets but nearly always disappoint. They are high yielding and have little character, little indeed to divert the attention of even a non-discerning wasp!