Wine Talk: Musky muscat

The world’s oldest-known and earliest recognized grape variety is undergoing a revival.

Wine cellar at Carmel Winery 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Wine cellar at Carmel Winery 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the last year I have written about nearly every variety of grape, yet I have almost forgotten the humble muscat. The reason is because it is regarded as a simple variety, and is less interesting than the more noble varieties.
Also the traditional sweet muscat dessert wines have come to be regarded as passé as new alternatives became available. However, muscat does have its claim to fame.
It is the world’s oldest known and earliest recognized grape variety. Furthermore in the last year or two, it has undergone an extraordinary revival due the success of Moscato. The muscat vine originated in the eastern Mediterranean and was then dispersed to southern Europe and North Africa by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. It made its home in the Mediterranean basin.
It is quite likely that it stayed in Israel during the last 2,000 years, having survived the Muslim strictures on wine production.
It will have been used as a table grape, for food or raisins. In any case, the muscat grape makes a real connection between ancient times and today.
There are many different varieties which are all part of the same muscat family.
The color of the berries ranges from green to black, depending on the specific variety.
Whichever it is, they all have an easily recognizable musky, grapey aroma. The three strains grown in Israel are the Muscat of Alexandria, the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Muscat Hamburg.
The Muscat of Alexandria is the most widely planted muscat grape and the one most associated with our region. It is sometimes known as muscatel or moscatel in Spain and Portugal. The moscatel of Setubal is a well-known example.
It goes by the name of Haneport in South Africa and Zibibbo in southern Italy. It also grows in Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, where it is known as Misket.
The most famous muscat is the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. This is the “classy” member of the family. It has smaller berries and produces aromas slightly more delicate and less bombastic than Muscat of Alexandria. If you see Muscat Blanc, White Muscat, Muscat Canelli or Muscat de Frontignan on a label, they are the same thing.
It is a versatile grape responsible for a wide range of wines from the bone dry Muscats d’Alsace, the sweet fortified Muscat de Beaumes de Venise to the luscious rich Liqueur Muscats of Australia. It is also responsible for sparkling wines like the frothy, sweet Asti Spumante from Piedmont in Italy and creamy, off dry Clairette de Die from the Rhone Valley in France.
The most famous Muscats in the eastern Mediterranean are produced from the Greek Island of Samos.
Primarily a food grape, the Muscat Hamburg is the third muscat in Israel. It is also called Black Muscat. It is the least known of the three. The red wines produced from it don’t have a great depth of color, but they are sweet and aromatic as you would expect from wine from this aromatic family.
Muscat may also be used in the production of spirits. Chile’s Pisco is made from the distillation of muscat wine.
Also the Greek Metaxa is a brandy liqueur, with muscat added to provide aroma and sweetness. In the rare Carmel 120 Brandy, produced to celebrate its 120th harvest, part of the blend is made from muscat distilled in pot stills.
Muscat of Alexandria is still being planted in Israel, but this is not because muscat dessert wines are making a comeback. It is to satisfy the new craze in wine.
These are low alcohol, light, frizzante, semi-sweet wines made in the style of Moscato d’Asti in Piedmont, Italy. Moscato has replaced Fantasia as the country’s fun wine and it is also taking a large share of the Emerald Riesling market.
The growth in popularity of Moscato is most apparent in America, where the phenomenon is described as “moscato madness.” The fast increasing sales have revived the Muscat grape variety and Moscatos are succeeding in introducing a whole new generation to wine.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and writes about wine for both Israeli and international publications.

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The Muscatos
The main wines made from muscat grapes in Israel are as follows. All should be served ice cold.
Low-alcohol moscatos Fun, easy drinking, slightly sparkling and sweet.
Moscatos will be liked by even those who don’t like wine. The ultimate family wine for kiddush. Alcohol 5.5-6%.
Young Selected Moscato
Golan Moscato Selected Moscato Dalton Moscato
Muscat table wine Semi-dry white wine with a fresh grapey aroma. Especially good with Asian cuisine.
Teva Muscat
Dessert wines Aromatic sweet dessert wines. They are made in the style of a “Vin Doux Naturel,” from the Southern Rhone in France. Perfect with cheesecake.
Yarden Muscat Private Collection Muscat
Port style Made from Muscat Hamburg. The wine to sip after dinner. It has the traditional Muscat aroma.
Tishbi Red Muscat
Kiddush wines These are standard kiddush wines. Both are white, very sweet and aromatic.
King David Muscat Hallel Muscat