By Rose Murray Brown MW    Published in The Scotsman 10 June 2017

Imagine a wine which actually smells and tastes of fresh grapes.  This might sound odd, but Muscat really is one of the only varieties with a flavour similar to biting into a beautifully ripe juicy bunch of freshly picked grapes.

The ancient Muscat variety is very popular as a table grape, but also as a base for Italian sparkling Asti Spumante, sweet vin doux naturels like France’s Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and intensely rich fortified wines like Australia’s Liqueur Muscats.  However, it is Dry Muscat which is now on the increase as the grape makes very stylish aromatic fresh dry summery aperitifs.

Dry Muscat styles are popular in the Mediterranean, in Alsace in eastern France, Austria and Germany – and are now becoming popular in Chile, California and beyond.

There are in fact over 200 different types of Muscat grapes with varying quality.  The most ancient of these is the small berried ‘Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains’ which gives grapey, floral and spicy character to the wine – and is particularly good for making dry wines with its ability to withstand hot weather.  Its offspring (from crossing with Axina de Tres Bias) is ‘Muscat of Alexandria’, which is widely grown in Piedmont in northern Italy (called Moscato d’Alessandria), Sicily (Zibibbo), Spain and Portugal (Moscatel).  The early ripening pale Muscat Ottonel is particularly popular in cooler microclimates in Alsace in France, as well as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Republic of Moldova.

All Muscat varieties have one thing in common.  The distinctive grapey Muscat aroma – which, according to grape geneticist Jose Voumailloz gave the grape its name – deriving from the ‘musky’ aroma produced by a gland of the male musk deer in Southern Asia which was once used to make a rare perfume – and it is nothing to do with the city of Muscat in Oman.

Dry Muscat is tricky to make well, but winemakers are becoming more experienced with the high sugar levels in the grape – with an increasing number of interesting examples of dry Muscat from around the world on our shelves.

La Mancha, Spain:  ESCUDO DE ORO MUSCAT 2015 (13%; £9.49 www.laithwaites.co.uk)
For those who like off-dry aromatic whites, this is all about those primary grape flavours so typical of Muscat.  Not only does it smell deliciously grapey, but it has a touch of lychees and sweet honey on the palate which adds to its character.  This unusual Spanish white hails from the central La Mancha plateau, grown up at 830 metres altitude.  Best served with slightly spicy Thai dishes.

Alsace, France:  DRY MUSCAT D’ALSACE ‘COLLECTION’ 2014 Kuentz-Bas (13%; £11.50 www.thewinesociety.com)  ***STAR BUY***
A pretty summery blend of two Muscat varieties – the paler Muscat Ottonel with Muscat d’Alsace adding flavour concentation.  Grown on limestone, silt and loess soils in the foothills of the Vosges mountains in one of Alsace’s highest vineyards at Husseren-les-Chateaux.  With its floral and peach aromas, honeysuckle and apple flavours and fine length for the price, this is a perfect summer white for serving as aperitif or with green asparagus.

Languedoc, France:  LE COCHON DOUE MUSCAT SEC 2015 (13%; £8.99 www.virginwines.co.uk)   ***STAR VALUE BUY***
Our tasters picked this as their value favourite for its generous grapey nature, exuberant exotic fruit and refined dry stony finish.  Made by a Kiwi Brent King who used New World winemaking techniques to add richness to the local Mediterranean Muscat grapes from Florensac commune in Languedoc, but the wine was bottled in Spain.  The result is what I call a ‘hammock’ wine – something that is easy to drink in your garden on a warm summer’s evening.

Itata, Chile:  COLINAS DEL ITATA OLD VINE FIELD BLEND MUSCAT CORINTO 2016 de Martino (12.5%; £10 Marks & Spencer)
From the far south of Chile in Itata valley near Guarilihue.  A dry version of Muscat giving its typical grapey aromas, whilst Corinto in the blend to add a lemony tang.  Itata has some of Chile’s oldest vines – up to100 year old vines which give a wonderful depth of fruit – made by top performing Chilean winery, de Martino.

Pantelleria, Sicily:  PIETRA NERA ZIBIBBO SEC 2016 Marco de Bartoli (12%; £22.50 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
From a little-known volcanic island midway between Sicily and Tunisia, where Muscat is known as Zibibbo.  Considering its southerly origin, this is very refined and minerally thanks to the black lava rock (called Pietra Nera).  This Zibibbo is made from 57 year old vines grown on northfacing Contrada Cufura and Contrada Ghirlanda which gives Muscat a very citric flavour with hints of salt from the sea spray.  Enriched by a touch of oaking, this highly aromatic rich dry Muscat would work well with grilled fish or shellfish.

Join Rose’s South West France wine & charcuterie tasting in Edinburgh on Thursday 6 July £42  www.rosemurraybrown.com

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