The Mystery of Muscat

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | july 2016

Whether you call it Moscatel, Moscato, Muskateller, Sarga Muskotàly or Yellow Muscat this widely grown, easily recognized and pungent grape continues to be eclipsed by the more recognizable varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. For those of us over the age of 50, we may know one of Muscat's most infamous wines — Thunderbird. It was produced by the Gallo brothers for denizens of skid rows around the country. The refrain that was used in a 1957 radio jingle advertising this potent drink was:

What's the word?
Thunderbird! How's it sold?
Good and cold.
What's the jive? Birds alive.
What's the price? Thirty twice.

While Thunderbird is largely forgotten today, the grape that was used to produce it is still around, and it is still used in the production of fine wine. If you have ever had the Italian drink called a Bellini you have tasted this unusual grape when peach juice is mixed with Prosecco, which is made using the Moscato grape. Some of the finest wines of Hungary, the Tokays, have small amounts of Sarga Muskotàly added to provide a perfumed touch to these wonderful wines. Yet it still suffers from its iniquitous past and still plays only a bit part in most wines.

The Muscat grape is one of the oldest wine grape varieties and some theories point to its origin in ancient Persia and as early as 3,000 BC. Some say that the name Muscat pins its origin to that city in Oman. Still others tie the name to the Italian word for fly, mosca, which may have been attracted to the extremely grapey sweet and floral aroma of the ripe grapes. There are over 200 varieties of Muscat ranging from white to pink to red and all the way to black. Many ampelographers (wine geneticists) believe that all our modern varieties descended from this particular grape. The grapes tolerance for high temperatures also makes it very desirable for raisin production. Muscat has never been an outstanding variety on its own other than some esoteric high alcohol port-like wines.

There is, however, a significant role for this grape in a new wave of blended white wines from California that started with the introduction of Caymus Conundrum in 1989. The genesis of this wine came from the late Charlie Wagner and his wife, Lorna, mixing different wines to make a blend that matched the meal they were preparing. It was originally called a kitchen sink blend, but after years of production, it is more formulaic with the same flavor profile year after year. The wine is composed of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Viognier and Sèmillon. This is a wine that will match well with Thai or Vietnamese food. Aromas of apricot, pear and honeysuckle draw one into a sip that is reminiscent of oranges and lemon meringue pie. The initial sweetness is balanced with a bite of acidity that also includes peach and apple. While I prefer a malty Asahi beer with sushi, this would make a wonderful match. This wine is currently available at Woodman's for about $20 a 750 ml bottle which is a little pricey. I would recommend it as a gift bottle to your host at the next outdoor party. I tasted other alternatives that are just as impressive but a little easier on the wallet.

The Franciscan Estate Equilibrium, at $16.50 if you buy four bottles at Woodman's, is a combination of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat. In contrast with the Caymus Conundrum, leaving out the Viognier and Sèmillon has resulted in a lighter more refreshing wine. Franciscan, which was founded in 1972 by the famed Silver Oak vintner Justin Meyer has always been a value producer in Napa Valley. This wine is less of a serious food wine and more inclined to sipping on one of those hot August afternoons. The low alcohol content at 12.5 percent also gives this wine a nice zing that goes well with hot weather and won't get you tipsy or sleepy as the afternoon drones on with the pleasant buzzing of the annual cicada that signals the end of summer. One of the distinctive aromas of Muscat is orange or orange blossom that pairs with smells of ripe red grapefruit and honeysuckle. There is a bit of richness on the finish from the Chardonnay as well as some minerality and passion fruit.

The Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois is my value selection of this group. The two psychiatrists that founded the winery in 1981 named it for their combined passion “passion of two." The Ménage à Trois label is the value line of this winery and refers to a “mixture of three." Now the normal reference for “ménage à trois" is “three in a bed," but in this case, it could be one of two meanings. Folie à Deux sources its grapes from three different wine growing regions Alexander Valley, Sonoma and Dry Creek Valley, and the White blend is a mix of Chardonnay, Moscato and Chenin Blanc. In this case, the wine is distinctly sweeter than the first two wines and without the Sauvignon Blanc a little richer. For my taste, this would go well with grilled shrimp or with some chicken kebabs marinated in lemon juice and olive oil. At $7.50 a bottle, if you buy four at Woodman's, this is a buy by the case for summer parties.

My last choice is the Hot to Trot White Blend from the state of Washington and 14 Hands Winery. The winery is named for the wild horses that once roamed the hills of eastern Washington. These were small horses measuring only 14 hands high, hence the name. 14 Hands is a relatively new winery founded in 2005, but the winemaker Keith Kenison is no stranger to Washington state wines. Keith started out in the cellars of Chateau St. Michelle as a laborer and worked his way up to Q/A tech at sister company Columbia Crest where he eventually became head winemaker in 2002. Keith's philosophy is to preserve the fruit and freshness of the grapes by not manipulating the wine in the cellar. While this wine doesn't contain Muscat, it was still one of those great summer blends that you'll enjoy during the hot weather ahead. In the blend, Riesling plays the role of Muscat bringing sweetness and aroma. The wine is predominately Chardonnay and Riesling with small amounts of Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Sèmillon. The first smell is predominately apple, pear and melon with notes of citrus and flowers. Granny Smith apple and Bosc pear flavors dominate the flavor with hints of lemon. The low alcohol level (13 percent) lifts the acidity to give the wine a juicy finish that is perfect for grilled chicken paillards with herbed olive oil. This wine is also a bargain at $6.75 a bottle if you buy four at Woodman's.

Whichever you chose, enjoy the brief summer with wines that perfectly match a hot lazy summer afternoon.

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