The History of Moscato
The word “Moscato” may conjure images of sweet, pink bubbly wine, but it’s technically just the Italian word for the Muscat family of grapes. Multiple varieties grow throughout Italy and the world, and are made into still, sparkling, sweet and fortified wines.
Theories about the origins of Muscat grapes date ancestors of the varieties back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians of early antiquity (c. 3000-1000 BC) while some believe that the family of Muscat varieties were propagated during the period of classical antiquity (c. 800 BC to 600 AD) by the Greeks and Romans. However, while domestic wine production had a long history in ancient Egypt and Persia and classical writers such as Columella and Pliny the Elder did describe a very “muscat-like” grape.
The Moscato grape (Moscatel in Spain and Portugal) is actually one of the oldest and most widely grown grape families in the world. The grapes are actually believed to have originated in the Middle East and have been used in winemaking since the times of the ancient Greeks.
Interestingly, English Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus provided the first documented mention of wine made from the Muscat grape in his “De Proprietatibus Rerum”, written sometime between 1230 to 1240.
The Actual Grape
The Muscat family of grapes includes over 200 grapes, that have been used in wine production and as raisin and table grapes around the globe for many centuries. Their colors range from white (such as Muscat Ottonel), to yellow (Moscato Giallo), to pink (Moscatorosa del Trentino) to near black (Muscat Hamburg). Muscat grapes and wines almost always have a pronounced sweet floral aroma.
The cluster grows looser than others, with very large berries. Most of them resemble a smaller table grape.
Where It Can Grow
The grape prefers warm climates and grows well in a typical Mediterranean climate. Think Italy, France, Spain and Australia. Moscato Bianco is the oldest known variety of grape grown in the Piedmont region of Italy. It has been cultivated for centuries here giving it the honor of being one of the oldest grapes in Italy. Moscato is so prevalent in Italy because it adapted to the cooler climate and the limestone and sandstone soil found in Northern Italy. Italy produces more Muscat than any other country, the most popular product being Moscatod’Asti, made from Moscato Bianco.
Moscato isn’t an easy grape to grow. It produces low yields, is susceptible to mildew, attracts the grape berry moth, is a victim of leaf roll, odium, grey rot, and requires a long growing season as it buds early and ripens late. If you are going through all of the trouble to grow these grapes, you have to really want to make the wine…you could certainly choose a more agreeable grape
There is no one “true” Muscat, but rather a great many incarnations, each with its own regional nuance and character. For instance, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (Moscato Bianco in Italy) is the oldest and most popular of the Muscat family. It is grown throughout the Old and New Worlds and made into a range of wine styles as diverse as its synonyms.
Other notable members of this grape family include Muscat of Alexandria, the second-oldest member of the Muscat group, known for its light and fruity white wines. Muscat Ottonel is pale and ripens early, while Muscat Hamburg is a black grape variety and is often used as a table grape. Moscato Giallo and Moscato Rosa (yellow and pink) both come from northern Italy and are used to make a range of sweet and dry wines.
How it’s Made
Depending on which type of Moscato (see below) you are producing, it will dictate the winemaking techniques applied to it.
In general, this grape rarely is in an oak barrel. Stainless steel is used throughout the process from fermentation to aging. If there is oak aging, it is typically a neutral barrel that allows no oak influence in the wine, but will allow some oxygen to mellow the acidity.
What Does it Taste Like
The wine made from the Moscato grape is unique because of its low alcohol content. Often at around 5 percent alcohol content, compared to the 12-14 percent of most other Italian wines. These are wines made for drinking at any time of day. And, actually, that is exactly why it was popular among winemakers, before the wine started doing well commercially, since the low alcohol content meant that it was a wine that could be enjoyed by workers during lunch, without stopping them from doing their jobs well!
Following are some of the various Moscato Wine Styles:
1. Sparkling and Semi-Sparkling Moscato
The Italian wines of Moscato d’Asti (semi-sparkling) and Asti Spumante (sparkling) are the classic examples, but you’ll discover wines labeled “Moscato” are typically made in this style. Both of the Italian versions have Italy’s highest DOCG classification, which means they have a protected guarantee of origin much like Parmigiano-Reggiano. The best wines are highly aromatic and sweet, but perfectly balanced with zippy acidity, bubbles, and a clean, minerally finish.They burst from the glass with apricot, peach, tangerine, rose, orange blossom and even lychee, with a singular “grapey” quality seldom found in other wines. This might just be the perfect pool party wine.
2. Still Moscato
Still (as in not sparkling) versions of Moscato are made with Muscat Blanc grapes but also other Muscat varieties, like Muscat of Alexandria. Two wines worth checking out include Moscatel from Spain and Muskateller from Austria. Wines are often dry to taste, but since the aromatics are so sweet and fruity your brain tricks you into thinking they’re sweet. They’re awesome, especially if you’re counting carbs.
3. Pink Moscato
Pink Moscato is more of a marketing schtick than it is a classic Moscato wine style – even though it can be tasty! This wine is made with mostly Muscat grapes and usually dollup of Merlot to give it a ruby-pink color. Imagine the classic Moscato flavors with a touch of strawberry. If you love pink Moscato, you should definitely check out Brachettod’Acqui.
4. Red Moscato (aka Black Muscat)
It’s rare, but there’s a grape variety called Black Muscat. Imagine raspberry, rose petals and violets, with subtle roasted notes of assam black tea. The grape is a cross made from a rare Italian red grape called Schiava (wowsa) and Muscat of Alexandria. The United States has several good producers of Black Muscat worth checking out.
5. Moscato Dessert Wines
Even sweeter than Moscatod’Asti are the dessert wines. There are many to try: French Muscat de Rivesaltes and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise; In southern Spain, there is a special Moscatel Sherry with rich with caramel flavors; in southern Portugal, Moscatel de Setúbal is made with the rare MoscatelRoxo grapes; In Greece, Muscat of Samos comes in a variety of sweet styles; in Sicily, Muscat grapes are often partially dried to concentrate the sweetness; in Australia, Rutherglen Muscat is one of the sweetest styles in the world – so sweet, you could pour it over ice cream!
The Moscatod’Asti appellation is located within the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont. In 1993, it earned Denominazione di OrigineControllata e Garantita (DOCG) status, Italy’s highest wine classification—reserved for the country’s most classic, expressive wines.
DOCG certifies that the wine comes from a delineated place, is made using a specific method and uses traditional grapes. In the case of Moscatod’Asti, that style is fresh, fruity, gently fizzy, sweet and low in alcohol, at around 5% abv. Its signature, however, is in its aromatics.
Low price point is at the cause of the popularity of this wine. Usually found for as little as $10 per bottle, it has become an easy wine to purchase and, with the low alcohol, be enjoyed at any time of the day.
Moscato also pairs particularly well with spicy Asian fare (Thai, Szechuan, Korean) since the sweet from the wine cuts down the heat in the food. While seen as a dessert wine, cheese courses, charcuterie, or antipasto plates are all great pairings for Moscato d’Asti wines.
In-Depth Varietal Comparisons
If you have any experience with Moscato then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.
► Differences Between Moscato & Pinot Gris (Grigio)