Secret Weapon

By / Magazine / May 5th, 2010 / Like

What’s the world’s most undervalued wine? This tidbit can change your life.

Knowing its name will save you money so inadvertently make you richer. Pouring it for family and friends will dazzle them, making you seem smarter, cooler and instantly more popular — so relatively more famous in your sphere. It may even make you sexier if you consider the halo effect that your newfound richness, smartness, coolness and fame will have on you, combined with the fact that your beloved will probably end up drinking more because the wine is delicious. And you know where that leads, pussycat.

The wine is Muscat, which refers to the grape itself. Sound vaguely familiar? My point precisely. Muscat’s low profile keeps it under the radar, under-priced, overlooked and overachieving. I’ll even forgive you for thinking, “Oh yeah, isn’t that the sweet stuff from Australia and California?” because that’s probably its most well-known version. But like a lover who keeps you guessing, this intriguing variety goes by many aliases, hiding behind local names and styles. And in a single succulent sip, this wine can illicit a guttural moan before you realize it’s really that old flame, Muscat, in disguise — be it off-dry and sparkling, dry and still, or full-on sweet and rich.

Stumble upon a titillating dry table wine from Southern Italy called Zibibbo? That’s Muscat. Find a fragrant, sweet, golden Beaumes-de-Venise from Southern France? That’s Muscat. Captivated by an off-dry, gently sparkling Moscato d’Asti? That’s Muscat. And the feature that unites all Muscat wines: its perfume. It actually smells and tastes uncannily like ripe grapes, which may seem like a given but it’s probably the only grape variety that does so. And, like its name implies, it also has a certain hallmark musk-like aroma.

So let’s talk style.


the dry and still

If, to you, a wine’s first duty is to be dry and still, then Muscat from Alsace is for you. Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris are certainly Alsace’s more popular varietals, but Muscat can really shine when good vintage conditions and careful production methods dovetail nicely. To see what I mean, just taste Allimant Laugner Muscat 2007, which starts with powerful aromas of fresh fruit cocktail mixed with bunches of freshly cut wildflowers. Then, just as you expect a sweet flavour explosion, it slides discreetly across your palate: all-soft, lush, and dry with a cleansing zip of acidity. The 2007 vintage was stellar, and the Allimant family really knows its stuff, having perfected its technique for more than 200 years. This wine is wow-some. But Alsace isn’t the only region spinning out stellar dry Muscat.

I’m going to stop writing here for a moment and pour myself a glass of Duca di Castelmonte Gibele Zibibbo Secco 2008 from Sicily.

In my hand here is another dry Muscat well worth the price. It’s lean and dry, with the usual aromatic grape-musk-floral thing going on but with a streak of minerality that adds interest. With Southern Italy producing some of the very best value wines these days anyway, Zibibbo may well be the Next Big Little Thing; “little” because it will never be made in the volumes of, say, Chardonnay.

Yet another dry Muscat that’s shamelessly tasty and utterly underpriced is Vina Esmeralda by the reputable maker Torres, in Spain. This Muscat is blended with a dash of Gewürztraminer to dazzling effect. Flavours and aromas of honeyed grapes and jasmine from the Muscat combine with notes of lychee, rose, clove and ginger from the Gewürztraminer to make a richly complex wine. What’s more, the weight in the mouth (full) and texture (slippery) make it huge fun to drink.

With all of the charms of these dry Muscats, I’m most enamoured with their flexibility. They make brilliant aperitifs, pair famously with a broad range of meals from curry to quiche, and couple easily with almost any rich, creamy cheese. For under $20, that’s hard to beat.


the gently sweet and sparkling

If you like to start your evening or perk up the afternoon with something light, sparkling and a touch sweet, think Moscato d’Asti. Truth be told, Champagne can be expensive and stuffy; Cava can seem a little dry and austere and Prosecco can be all-too-often disappointingly dull. But Moscato d’Asti is none of these things. It’s pure refreshment and always reasonably priced. And its effervescence is so gentle it’s generally found in a regular bottle with a standard cork rather than a heavier one with a long, fat, wire-muzzled cork used for full-fledged bubbly. Though it looks like a still wine on the shelf, you can be certain of its little spritz. But what does it taste like?

Moscato d’Asti brims with flavours of orange, tangerine, apple, ripe grapes, blossom, cantaloupe and maybe a hint of grapefruit on the finish. Love it. And although the wine is always a little sweet, it tends to cleanse rather than cloy in the mouth. What I mean by that is, the acidity is usually balanced with the sweetness so it never tastes syrupy but rather clean and refreshing. Don’t take my word for it though; taste it for yourself. It won’t set you back much.

My current favourite at around $15 is Il Giai Moscato d’Asti 2008. Weighing in at 5.3 per cent alcohol, it is gently effervescent, and brims with crisp green grape flavours, edged with red apple and lemon blossom. It works marvellously well as a solo sipper because it’s more tart than sweet. And when I want something with a touch more sweetness to pair with fresh fruit or custard tart to finish a meal, I turn to Saracco Moscato d’Asti 2008. Saracco is lightly frothed with generous tangerine, clementine, violet, and apricot flavours, with a lovely seam of balancing acidity.

Moscato d’Asti is among the most versatile wines on the planet, largely because of its slight sparkle, enticing aromas and flavours, incredible lightness of being, and low alcohol. Made in Piedmont in northwest Italy, it’s an easy choice for a special breakfast, afternoon on the boat, cocktail reception in the garden, dinner party finish, or bedtime tipple. And it’s hard to imagine any food it wouldn’t take up a notch — from grapefruit to smoked salmon mousse on slices of toasted baguette. Easy thrill.


dessert wine

Although many argue Moscato d’Asti is the perfect dessert wine, sometimes you want something bolder for the finale — something truly sweet rather than a fence-sitter. For power, an unctuous mouthfeel, and copious quantities of sugar —balanced with cleansing acidity, of course — Muscat excels again. So bring on the Moscato di Pantelleria, Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, and Moscato di Lipari from Italy, as well as the Orange Muscat from Australia, the Black Muscat from California, and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from France, often simply called Beaumes de Venise. All of these full-fledged, pure-Muscat dessert wines beat a slice of pie, cake or torte hands down.

One of the best examples of sweet Muscat is Perrin & Fils Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2006 ($17/375 ml), which exudes deeply aromatic flavours of stewed peaches, chin-drip mango, candied oranges, honeysuckle and a subtle note of musk. It’s full-bodied with 15 per cent alcohol, and is certainly sweet but balanced with sufficient acidity. Like most sweet Muscats, this wine is truly a steal when compared with the more famous wines of Sauternes that cost four, five, six times the price, easily. In fact, Beaumes de Venise wines from the small appellation of the same name in Southern Rhône were actually more highly regarded than the great sweeties of Sauternes in the 1970s and 1980s, and have been loved by wine aficionados for 2000 years of recorded history.

Another fine example of sweet Muscat is Quady Elysium Black Muscat 2005 ($15/375 ml) from California with its candied orange, fresh roses, and lychee aromas and flavours. And I would be remiss not to mention the Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat NV ($26) from Rutherglen, Australia, which is insanely moreish. Rutherglen is well-known for producing this variety. In fact, the influential wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., awarded Yalumba’s Museum Reserve 96 points for its lusciously sweet, riveting flavours of rosewater, orange oil, ginger, spice cake, marzipan, figs, raisins and butterscotch. And it’s complex, concentrated and amber-coloured from time spent in oak.

Muscat dessert wines are fabulous pours to pair with hard cheeses such as Chevre Noir or creamy desserts such as homemade Madagascar vanilla ice cream after a meal. And they make smart hostess gifts too.

So, next time you’re lingering in the wine shop, casting an eye over the more popular varietals, see if you spot a Muscat in one of its guises and nab one. Stashing that in the fridge is arguably better emergency arsenal than a bottle of Krug — for the price.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wine book author and critic Carolyn Evans Hammond first fell in love with wine during her first trip to France many moons ago when she picnicked in the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone. Now she makes wine accessible with her witty and light approach to the topic. Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines: A No-Nonsense Guide to Popular Wine, is the first book to rank the best-selling wines in North America by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at Amazon.ca and the #2 one at Amazon.com and remains a bestseller to this day. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at www.goodbetterbestwines.com Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, is a compilation of trade secrets designed to illuminate the topic and help wine drinkers make more satisfying wine choices. It too is a bestseller, earning critical acclaim and international distribution (October, 2006, $12.95, Sourcebooks, Inc). As well as an author, Carolyn’s reviews and critical articles appear regularly in Taste and Tidings magazine, she has talked about wine on radio and TV throughout North America, and has contributed material in such eminent publications as Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, as well as Maclean’s in Canada. She issues a weekly newsletter, publishes a blog, runs a Facebook wine club, twitters, and conducts seminars and private consultations. Constantly learning, Carolyn spends much of her time tasting wine and meeting with winemakers and industry professionals. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK and the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada; she holds a Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK; and she earned a BA from York University where she studied English and Philosophy. She has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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