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photo of Muscat Blanc by Tim Ramey.Muscat, with its strong and distinctive perfume, was probably one of the first grape varieties to be identified and cultivated, probably in Greece. The Romans likely brought the first vines to Southern France before the 1300s, where it thrived and gained fame and name around the Languedoc village of Frontignan and dominated the Roussillon until the nineteenth century. It may be the most ancient known variety, since it is the first documented variety in France's Alsace, Italy's Piedmont, and as early as the 1100s in Germany.

Each muscat produces, with subtle variation, wines with the distinct, intense, aromatic, rosy-sweet, and easily-recognized scent of muscat and, unusual for most wine varieties, that actually taste like grapes.1

The muscat family has two main branches, one based on Muscat Blanc, one on Muscat Alexandria. Of over twenty identified distinct varieties of the muscat grape, the most desirable for wine due to its powerful aromatic intensity is Muscat Blanc, known as Muscat de Frontignan in France and Moscato di Canelli in Italy.2

The sweetness of dessert wine can often overcome varietal personality, but Muscat Blanc holds its own and partners beautifully with sweet styles. It is the only variety allowed to make Beaumes de Venise, the fortified dessert wine of the Rhône and also the basis for wines as diverse in style as Australia's famous fortified, thick and dark "stickies" and Italy's Asti Spumante, the pale, low alcohol, frizzante wine of Piedmont. Nearly every Mediterranean country has a famous wine based on muscat in one of its many stylistic variations.

The full name is Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and the berries are quite small and round, but not always white. The spectrum includes pale green, pale yellow, golden, pink, red, brown, and even black berries. Some vines produce fruit that can be different colored each vintage.

Muscat Hamburg (aka Black Muscat) and Muscat Ottonel are both crosses of Muscat Alexandria (aka Zibibbo) and mostly cultivated for (very tasty) table grapes and somewhat for making (less exciting) wines. Argentina's torrontés variety has muscat as one parent and fortunately inherited muscat's grapey aroma.

The muscat vine is not very vigorous in most soil types, especially sandy mixtures, and seems to prefer damp, deep soils. It also falls victim quite easily to any of several vine diseases. Normally early in budding, muscats may also suffer from Spring frosts; muscat Ottonel is particularly susceptible to shatter or coulure. All things considered, muscat would not seem to be a grape that would be cultivated so widely as it is, based on the viticultural challenges.

Muscat wine styles vary from light and bone dry, to low-alcohol sparkling versions, to very sweet, thick, and alcoholic potions. Modern enological techniques such as skin contact (maceration pélliculaire), selected yeast cultures, and controlled low temperature fermentations can help extract or produce the aromatic compounds that retain or enhance the natural fresh "grapey-ness" of muscat, but this character holds up even submitted to the rigors of fortification and long aging.3

*Typical Muscat Smell and/or Flavor Elements
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: fresh grapes, peach (best not aged in wood)

Perfume: muscat (terpene)


Floral: rose petal  

Spice: coriander


Muscat was introduced to California in the 1850s, imported as a table grape from New England nurseries and a few wineries dabbled making dessert wines in small batches. Following the repeal of Prohibition, Napa's Beaulieu Vineyards, among others, popularized a dessert wine they called Muscat de Frontignan. The TTB outlawed this designation on wines labeled after 1996, permitting only Muscat Blanc and Muscat Canelli henceforth on American wine labels.

California had barely 100 acres of muscat blanc in 1961, over 400 by 1971. Since 1981, muscat blanc acreage has been fairly steady at 1,100 to 1,300 acres. Muscat orange, which has a distinct orange blossom aroma, is grown on 135 acres. Muscat of Alexandria, with less distinctive aroma and flavor than muscat blanc, but which thrives in warm growing areas, is planted to over 5,000 acres of California vineyards (mostly Central Valley). It sets a very large crop of fruit that can get very sweet, but its resulting wine aroma is simply sweet and flavor merely fruity. Why endeavor or risk attaining quality when making mass quantities of mere mediocrity brings comfort?

by Jim LaMar

1 The aromas of Muscat primarily issue from monoterpenes (hydrocarbons naturally present in a many plants), such as geraniol, linalool, and nerol; these are also found at lower levels in Riesling and Gewürztraminer. BACK

2 The muscadelle variety, permitted in and used as a minor blending grape in some white Bordeaux and Sauternes and also used in some Australian "Tokay stickies", is unrelated to muscat, in spite of the name similarity. BACK

3 The "Noble Rot" Botrytis cineria destroys terpenes, so infestations strip Muscats of their key feature. BACK

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

4. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

5. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

6. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

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