In the season of sweet, these wines can seduce you
Muscat (also known as moscato, moscatel, moscadello, muskateller and muscadel) is one of the world's oldest wine grapes, whose history of cultivation goes back to the ancient Romans and Greeks, and possibly much earlier.
Today it is grown in virtually every significant wine region in the world. Broadly speaking, muscats come in three main styles: dry, sparkling and sweet. I like to think of them as the three muscat tiers. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that one.)
Dry muscats, often labeled Muscat Canelli (after a town in Italy), are popular tasting-room wines in California and Washington. Most are pleasant, but rarely demonstrate the luscious depths of which the grape is capable.
With scents of honeysuckle, citrus and lemongrass, a wonderful exception is the 2002 "Champoux Vineyard" Muscat ($12) from Yellow Hawk Cellar in Walla Walla.
Sparkling muscats are a story unto themselves, graceful wines epitomized by Moscato D'Astis light, elegant to a fault and wonderfully refreshing. I will cover them in a future column in The Times' Wednesday Food section.
Today, the spotlight is on sweeter, more potent delights, the fortified muscat dessert wines. By and large, these are not mainstream wines. They are made because somebody, somewhere cares enough to do the extra work required to offer you something wonderful at a modest price.
Truth be told, we live in an era in which dry red wines, and dry whites sporting distinctively oaky flavors, are in vogue. Sweet wines are as out of date as your old Iron Butterfly albums. Nonetheless, the great ones can put you right back In-A-Gadda-Da-Vino.
Most dessert muscats are fortified wines, which means the fermentation has been stopped by the addition of neutral spirits. As a result, these wines are naturally sweet and pack a considerable alcoholic punch. Their alcohol levels generally range between 14 and 17 percent, but the impact is amplified by the sugar.
They are often sold in 375ml or 500ml bottles, but because they are so rich and concentrated, even a small bottle will easily serve four, and a 500ml bottle could serve six.
They should be chilled, but not ice cold, and most should be consumed while young. Some wineries, particularly in Australia, make their muscats more like a tawny port, blending vintages and then aging them in barrels for many years before bottling. But most dessert muscats are from recent vintages, and virtually all are ready to be drunk upon release.
These are beautiful wines, coming in a rainbow of colors from pale gold to deep mahogany. I like to serve them in small, elegant glasses, but not so small that their exotic aromas are buried. If you are really intent on pinning the decadence meter, you may wish to serve them with an appetizer of foie gras or later with a selection of triple cream cheeses.
More often, they will make a perfect accompaniment to desserts such as crème brulée, fruit tarts, shortbread biscuits or lemon pound cake. Quite honestly, the best muscats are complete desserts all by themselves, or served with ginger wafers or fresh figs.
Muscat flavors vary according to the region, the winemaking techniques and the variety used. But a certain continuity of tastes can be traced throughout the muscat family. Look for flavors of mandarin orange, apricot and peach. But don't settle for simply sweet. Citrus zest and ginger can also be found, along with scents and flavors of rose petals and black tea. The better the wine, the more depth and length it will show.
A truly exceptional muscat, such as the Casta Diva from Spain, will expand in your mouth for several minutes after a single, small sip. I can't think of a better way to bring Valentine's Day to the table any day of the year.
Recommended (by region)
Quady 2002 Essensia and 2002 Quady Elysium (each $13/375ml). These two, one made from orange muscat, the other from black muscat, are consumer favorites fat, full-bodied and tasty. I give a slight edge to the Elysium for its unusual boysenberry highlights.
Casta Diva 2001 'Cosecha Miel' ($25/500ml). This was the best wine of my tasting, an extraordinary effort with an exotic mix of flavors: quince, ginger and pear swathed in sweet honey (cosecha miel means honey harvest); orange pekoe tea flavors extend almost indefinitely.
Pellegrino 2001 Moscato di Pantelleria ($19/750ml). Save this for the last, best moment of a dinner party. From an Italian island off Sicily, it is so intense, concentrated, distinctive and fragrant that it really must stand alone.
Samos "Vin Doux" Sweet Muscat ($10/750ml). A chiffon pillow of a wine, all honey and vanilla. "Pull taffy in a bottle," said Mrs. G.
Domaine de Coyeux Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($15/375ml). A lovely example of the regional style, with flavors of rose petals, honey, tea and spice. The finish unfolds with hints of marshmallow, butterscotch and sweet tea.
Chateau de Jau 2001 Muscat de Rivesaltes ($20/500ml). Honey and butter, peaches and apricots; a tasty, big, appealing wine.
Amuse Muscat ($36/500ml). This Australian gem might be mistaken for a tawny port, with 18 percent alcohol and flavors of nuts, raisins and toffee.
Yalumba 'Museum Reserve' ($17/375ml). Another nutty, densely concentrated Australian "stickie." Coffee and toffee flavors dominate a long, ultra-sweet finish.
Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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