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Pretty in Pink

Moscato is in fashion these days. Bottles of the stuff are flying off the shelves at cellar doors around the country. It is easy to understand why. Refreshing, spritzy and sweet, Moscato is a favourite among the Gen Y set, where it is seen as the ideal ‘entry wine’ for those young drinkers who are just beginning to walk the refined path into the wonderful world of vino after weening themselves off those sickly alcopops, or who grew up drinking juices or soft drinks.

Here is the reason. Moscato is generally low in alcohol, at around 5-6%, so it is easy to enjoy without getting too tipsy, it has a divinely sweet musk aroma and it is versatile. Serve it chilled as the perfect wine to sip on a steamy summer afternoon, or as an aperitif to lunch, or enjoy it with your meal as a cool match with a fruit salad or dessert – lychees and ice-cream with a Moscato D’Asti anyone?

Another reason is the fact Moscato is cheap! Most bottles of the stuff are in the $12–$20 range, so it fits the budget, especially of young fashion conscious ladies who have forked out most of their hard-earned on a designer dress with matching accessories, handbag and shoes. Add to that the fact that Moscato is in fashion. It is the ultimate ‘drink accessory’ if you will, the fashionable tipple to be seen drinking. Rap stars like Kanye West sing about ‘sipping on Moscato’, this in turn has created an unprecedented demand for the wine in the United States and set off a Moscato-planting frenzy in Californian vineyards.

So with all these factors going for it, you can understand why every winemaker and his dog is jumping on the Moscato bandwagon – the result of such action is mixed. Because when that happens, you get a range of the good, the great and the downright ugly.

So what separates a good Moscato from a bad one? To answer that, you have to know what qualities you should be looking for in Moscato. Simple question, but quite tricky to answer.

History of the grape

Before we delve into what qualities to look for in a Moscato, it is worthwhile learning a bit about the heart of Moscato – humble Muscat grape, yep, the same grape that makes many Fortified wines! Muscat is one of (if not the) oldest grape varieties in the world. The name Muscat is believed to been derived from the Latin Muscus, and relates to the perfumed aroma of musk (originally sourced from the male musk deer). An interesting fact is Muscat is one of the only grapes whose aroma on the vine matches that in the glass.

It is thought that the Muscat grape originated in Greece or the Middle East and was transported to Italy and France during Roman times. It consequently spread all over the world including Europe, Africa and the Americas.

It made its way to Australia as part of Busby’s collection in 1832, but it has been noted that other cuttings have since come from other sources including Italy and South Africa.

Accordingly, with so much history and being so widely dispersed, the Muscat grape has undergone many mutations and these days there are over 200 different varieties, which is an amazing amount and exponentially more than any other grape varietal. This diversity is an important factor in this story, because it accounts for the subtle differences in Moscato wine made in different countries and regions.

Some of the most common types of Muscat grape are: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (also called Moscato Bianco or Muscat de Frontignan or Frontignac), Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains, Muscat of Alexandria (also known as Muscatel, Gordo Blanco or Muscat Gordo), Moscato Giallo, Orange Muscat and Moscato Rosa.

The Italian Asti

Traditionally, the home of Moscato is in Asti in Italy’s Piedmont region where it has been made since the early 13th century. Like most things back in that time, the wine style developed due to a natural phenomena occurring in the region. Winemakers would pick the grapes in late autumn and start fermentation, but this process was halted as temperatures dropped as the seasons moved toward winter. This resulted in a wine that was sweet, low in alcohol and lightly carbonated. They would bottle it and keep it cold to keep the fermentation process from resuming, otherwise bottles would explode when fermentation resumed.

The region has since developed two styles of Moscato, Asti Spumante (simply referred to as Asti) a sweet sparkling wine and a Moscato D’Asti, a sweet semi-sparkling wine, which is lightly carbonated naturally – the Italian term being frizzante.

With such history, the Moscatos of Asti were one of the first to have Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), rules and regulations governing the making of the wines. These rules stipulate that winemakers in the region must make Moscato from the Moscato Bianco varietal and vineyards must be on sunny hilltops or slopes whose soil is either calcareous or marly (calcareous clays).

There are also regulations about sugar levels of the grapes. Asti must have sugar levels sufficient to produce 9% alcohol, Moscato D’Asti 10% alcohol. Of course the wines never achieve those levels of total alcohol content because the winemaker chills the wine to interrupt fermentation process. Exploding bottles have been eliminated as winemakers now stop any further fermentation by filtering the wine to remove the yeasts.

Moscato in Australia

In contrast to Piedmont, it has been virtually open slather producing Moscato in Australia. Winemakers were able to make it from any type of Muscat grape. While we have some Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) as they do in Italy, many producers use Muscat of Alexandria (Gordo Blanco), which is also used in Australia to make table grapes and even raisins, we use Brown Muscat or Muscat Giallo and some winemakers are adding a dash of other varietals in an attempt to create an interesting twist on the wine.

Crittenden Estate winemaker Rollo Crittenden reveals that they use a blend of three varietals for their Moscato.

“It is predominantly Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Bianco, but there is a dash of Gewürztraminer (about 10%) which gives the wine added lift and aromatics,” Rollo says. “We are certainly very proud of it and feel that it closely resembles a true Moscato from the Asti region in Italy.”

Gary Reed, chief winemaker at Petersons in the Hunter Valley, and special guest for this State or Play tasting, reveals they source the grapes for their Moscatos from the Granite Belt. “We tend to use the Muscatel (Muscat of Alexandria) grape,” says Gary. “We soak overnight and freeze it after fermentation and keep knocking it back.” According to Gary there is nowhere for the winemaker to hide in making Moscato, it is all about fruit from the vineyard.

“Any imbalance is really accentuated,” he says. “A good Moscato should have that long length, good balance and acidity. It should not have any coarseness or hardness and should not be cloying on the palate.

“There can be a rainbow of colours, anything from light straw through to dark pinks, even reds. The aroma is generally musky, but it can be a bit dusty as well, with a range of sweetness from slightly dry to fully sweet and from still, to frizzante to bubbly – and all are valid examples of the variety.”

The rush

Consumer demand for Moscato has a rush to get it on the market. “Ten years ago there were only a couple around, but it has really emerged in the last four years,” says Gary. “We are doing upwards of 40 tonnes of it – I can’t think of another varietal that has gone from zero to 40 tonnes in four years.”

This has resulted in vary types of Moscato and varying levels of quality. While some producers have been able to source Muscat grapes from established areas, a lot of Moscato is being made from very young, immature vines. But because there isn’t the same level of scrutiny as there would be for something like a Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, producers have been able to get away with putting out sub-standard Moscato without the market knowing any better.

That being said, there are some producers who are taking the time and effort to produce quality Moscato in this country and those sourcing from older vines, and predominantly using the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains or the Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains are rising to the top.

Producers like T’Gallant and Innocent Bystander source their grapes from 30-year-old Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains vines in the Swan Hill region, while Gary said his wine is made from established vineyards in the Granite Belt, originally planted for use as table grapes.

“The older vine material gives you a richness and intensity of flavour,’ says Gary. “Really fruity and quite intense.”

The Future

With Moscato being made as a style in Australia rather than the reflection of the Muscat grape, the industry’s governing body, Wine Australia, has stepped in recently and set some rules and regulations for making Moscato.

From the next vintage, Moscato can only be made using any of 13 different Muscat grapes. The list is headed by Muscat à Petits Grains (Blanc and Rouge) and Muscat of Alexandria, but also includes Gewürztraminer, which falls under the banner of Muscat grape as a close cousin and is sometimes called Traminer Musque. Overall, this ruling should result in some consistency and quality control in Australian Moscato.

Quality Moscato will also eventuate from recently planted vines getting some age and maturity and via winemakers working out what blend of Muscat grape (and possibly Gewürz) works best for their region.

Sure, our Moscato may never be as refined and delicate as their Italian cousins, but they will always be an easy to drink, aromatic wine with low alcohol, and a good introduction for younger people wanting to develop their wine palate. I guess then it only depends on what is in fashion – after all, the rap stars of the next generation could sing about sipping on a ‘Chardy’!

Check out Wine Selectors great range of Moscato today.

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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