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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the origins of Moscato. Beavers explains that Moscato comes from a family of grapes called Muscat, and explains the differences between the two distinct categories of Muscat: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Muscat of Alexandria.
Beaver explains that Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — grape varieties in the world. This particular grape produces a strong aroma, whereas Muscat of Alexandria is known mostly for its sweetness. Listen or read on to learn more about the past and present of this often misunderstood grape.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I mowed the lawn for the first time in 30 years. I’m not good at it. I need help. What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 18 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers, and I’m the tastings director of VinePair. And you are very cool. OK, this is a big one. It’s a little bit crazy. Everyone’s confused about it all the time. I was confused about it for a long time. Moscato, Moscatel, and Muscat. What is this stuff? We got to talk about it.
Sometimes, I think about what it was like for me when I was coming up in wine. I was obsessed with it, and I felt like I had to know everything about it. There were times when I saw a subject matter, a grape variety, or a family of grapes, and it overwhelmed me so much that I would just ignore it. I would ignore it for a long time, but when I finally got around to it, I understood it. This is the reason why I even do this whole thing, “Wine 101,” and teaching about wine, because I know what it’s like to be confused about a thing in wine. This episode here is one of those subjects that confused me for a long time. I thought, what is going on? It’s insane and it’s a little confusing even right now as I’m talking about it to you. This subject is a grape or a family of grapes called Muscat.
The word Muscat is not the original name for this grape. This grape has been around forever. It’s believed that this is the oldest wine grape ever cultivated by humans. I know we talk about how old Pinot Noir is, but I never said that it was the oldest. I just said it’s very old. Muscat is probably the oldest variety cultivated. Since it was probably the oldest grape cultivated, that means that it has been hanging out in the Mediterranean for so long, traveling all over the Mediterranean and then across the world. It has mutated so many times and has had cross-pollination with other varieties. The Muscat grape family is huge. It is one of the largest grape families out there. Not only that, Muscat grapes are yellow, but they can also be pink or black, which in the wine industry or wine world, black is basically red wine grapes. And even crazier is that from vintage to vintage, it can slightly change in color. That’s how old all these things are. It’s just nuts.
The wines that are made from the Muscat grapes are often going to be sweet. Sometimes, they’re dry, but they’re often sweet. Sometimes they’re even bubbly, no matter what color they are. Almost every country that makes wine has some form of Muscat grape wine. Now, this is where things get really confusing. For our purposes, here in this episode, there are two distinct varieties of Muscat. Throughout the world, they either use one or the other or both. Depending on the country’s language, the history of the grape there, it has its own name. You could be drinking wine made from the Muscat grape but it’s a wine called Zibibbo. It’s a progeny of the Muscat grape, of one of these big two.
That’s where the confusion lies, is everyone has their own style but all comes from two distinct varieties. One is Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, and we’ll get to that in a second. The other one is Muscat of Alexandria. These are the two most known and used Muscat grapes. These are also the two that have spawned other varieties of Muscat around the world. Actually, the first one, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is a parent of Muscat of Alexandria, so it’s all connected. It’s thought that Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is superior to Muscat of Alexandria, in general. It really isn’t about the superior-inferior so much. It is about what the two varieties have to give. The Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is more aromatic, where you get the classic orange blossom, honeysuckle stuff. It’s also very expressive, whether it’s dry or if it’s fizzy, or if it’s sweet, it’s very expressive.
The Muscat of Alexandria is really interesting. Whenever I do tasting classes with people and I ask them to smell and tell me what they smell, I say, “Look, if it smells like grapes, let me know, because that’s a wine made from grapes so it’s OK to say that a wine smells like grapes.” Well, wines made from Muscat of Alexandria are grapey. They basically smell like grape juice. They can be sweet, slightly aromatic, a little bit savory sometimes, but they are grapey. Also, what’s annoying or cumbersome is, why does Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains have that long of a name? It makes sense because Muscat Blanc means white Muscat. Petits Grains mean small grain or small seeds. This particular variety of Muscat, probably the oldest variety of Muscat, has small seeds, and it’s also nice and round. Actually, sometimes, it is referred to as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains Ronds, which means round.
Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson was part-editor, writer, and author of “The Oxford Wine Companion,” but she also was part-contributor on an amazing book called “Wine Grapes.” Very simple name, but a huge tome of wine parentage with the whole genealogy of every grape that they could find, and it was insane. In that book, there are at least 60 synonyms for this grape alone. Just to give you a sense: Muscat d’Alsace, Muskateller, Moscato Bianco, Moscato d’Asti, Muscat de Frontignan, Moscatel Blanco, White Muscat, Moscato d’Asti Canelli, Muscat Romain, and Sàrga Muskotàly. These are all names of wines made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
It’s believed that this is the grape that was established in the Greek settlement of Massalia, which is now the southern French city of Marseille. That city is very far in the east of the southern arch of the Mediterranean coast of France near Provence. If you keep going west, what’s really cool is you hit a town called Montpellier and after you hit Montpellier is a town called Frontignan. In that town is where they think that the Romans started planting this variety. If you keep going west from there, when you’re going towards the Pyrenees, you hit this beautiful, ancient town called Narbonne. It’s thought that this particular Muscat was already established in that area by the Gauls.
This thing has been around for a long time, and it wasn’t always called Muscat. The history of the word Muscat has a couple of theories. One is that these wines are so aromatic that the French use the word “musk” or “musque,” which for them is basically the aroma of musk. That aroma originated from a gland of a musk deer. They associated that musky smell with this wine. There’s a thought that Muscat comes from musk. The other theory — and this one’s really fun — the Muscat grape, when it’s on the vine because of the amount of sugar that it produces in the sweetness, it attracts bees a lot. It’s thought that there was a grape that was referenced by the ancient Greeks, and I cannot figure out how to pronounce this. Actually, when you put these two words into Google, it says, “We don’t know how to pronounce this.” I’m going to try and it is called Anathelicon Moschaton. I’m not sure what the first word means, but I know the second word is very similar to mosca, which means fly.
Then, you have Pliny the Elder, who was an ancient Roman agronomist and wrote a lot about wine. He called the wine Uva Apiana, and ape means bee in Italian. I just love those historical connections that bring things together. It’s so cool. And what’s even cooler is that Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains — which is very hard to say — but DNA profiling has had a hard time finding its origins. However, they believe that this all started in Greece, and what’s interesting about that is there is a wonderful wine in Greece. It’s called Moschofilero, and it tastes just like Moscato. Awesome stuff, guys. Awesome ancient stuff.
One more thing about this grape before I move on to the next one. You have experienced this particular Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is Moscato d’Asti. That wine is from the Asti region of Piedmont. We did an episode previously about Barolo and Barbaresco talking about how important those wines are in Piedmont, but here’s another mind bomb for you: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, which the Italians refer to as Moscato, is the first grape to be documented in the history of Piedmont. Not Nebbiolo, not Barbera, not Dolcetto. It is Moscato. Actually, through DNA profiling, it is suggested that out there that if you see a wine with Muscat in the name, there’s a really good chance that this Muscat was a parent of that Muscat.
Speaking of parents, the other Muscat I want to talk about is almost as ancient as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, and is actually progeny. Petits Grains, at some point, cross-pollinated with a grape called Axina de Tres Bias, which is really not around that much, and created the grape Muscat of Alexandria. I mean, how much easier is that to say, am I right?
This is the other very popular Muscat. It also has dozens and dozens of synonyms. It was spread around the Mediterranean, mainly by the Romans. That is why sometimes it’s called Muscat Romain. And where Petits Grande is known for its aromatics, the Muscat of Alexandria is just known for its sweetness. It’s known for its grapiness. It can literally smell like grape juice sometimes, like Capri Sun-style. This is the Muscat in Chile that is distilled into a brandy named pisco. There’s also a wine, and you’ll see it around, that’s called Zibibbo. It’s a wine from Sicily, and they believe it’s derived from the Arabic word for raisin because these grapes are really great for making raisins. There was a big occupation by the Carthaginians in Sicily who were Arabs, and they think that’s where that came from.
Also, speaking of raisins, California does make wine from Muscat of Alexandria, but California also produces raisins from this grape. Actually, to this day, this Muscat of Alexandria — and I don’t know if it’s popular — is a table grape in Britain. They grow it under glass like they did back in the day in New England. If you want to know about that craziness, check out my Zinfandel episode. If you’re drinking Moscatel from Spain, it’s Muscat of Alexandria. If you’re drinking Hanepoot from South Africa, it’s Muscat of Alexandria. In Australia, they have Gordo Blanco and Lexia, and that is also the Muscat of Alexandria. This wine is associated with sweetness. It can be very, very sweet. Zibibbo can be very sweet, but so can a lot of the other Muscats.
Now, one of the things I wanted to tell you guys about is that what’s really fun is drinking Moscato dry. There’s just something so special, because the first time I experienced it, I did not know what was going on. Because I was in the same boat as you guys. The Muscats that I knew were from Italy and then just random stuff that I would try in my life. I would actually pour Zibibbo by the glass at one point in my Italian restaurant, and a lot of it is sweet. When you have a dry Moscato — whether it’s from the Muscat of Alexandria, which you actually find some really good ones in California, or whether it’s from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains — the dry version of Moscato is so wild in that when you smell it, your nose is like, “I’m smelling Moscato.” You smell all the sweetness, you smell the orange blossoms, the honey, and the almond.
Yet, when you sip it, it’s not there so much. It’s a very subtle sweetness, and it’s crazy because it’s more like a scented wine. It’s a naturally scented wine because of how aromatic these varieties are, but because the yeast has had its way with the wine and fermented to dryness, the palates are almost like river rock minerality, with these suggestions of the aromas you have on your nose showing up on the palate. They’re so refreshing, enjoyable, and balanced. They’re cool. If you ever get a chance to try a dry Moscato, do it.
OK, so I hope I gave you guys a little bit of clarity there about this Moscato, Muscat stuff. It can be confusing, but if you start here, you’ll start getting a sense of it. And as you drink more wines from this family of grapes, you just know what you’re drinking. I think it’s important because I didn’t for a long time, and I hope you guys do.
@VinePairKeith is here is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.