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What Happens When the Moscato Music Stops?

Can the gold rush reach more venerable styles of Muscat, or will its collapse leave the wine's reputation in shambles?

Posted: Nov 14, 2013 10:45am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

Australia soaked the world with critter labels. Zinfandel was lobotomized into a candy wine. Italian bubbly became an '80s ad jingle. California Merlot got overplanted, then yelled at in a popular movie. You know what happened next: The producers who got intoxicated on mass-market success didn't lift their premium counterparts with the rising tide—instead, they eventually torpedoed the whole category.

After the inevitable crash in market share and reputation, each of these regions or wine types floated facedown for years, even decades, before their recent renaissances as wines capable of depth and nuance. (Australia and Merlot are still swimming upstream, arguably.)

What next, then, once Moscato hits the iceberg?

You know by now that Moscato, the fizzy, off-dry, low-alcohol wine from the Muscat grape family, currently occupies the throne of $8.99. As I reported last year, wine newbies were snapping it up in such numbers that producers literally couldn't get enough of it: Yellow Tail had to postpone its Moscato launch for a year to get enough fruit in the tanks, while Gallo had seven SKUs on shelves and three more on the way.

It's popular with clubgoers and Michigan housewives alike. It is our white Zinfandel, I would hear. "Millennials!" noted some observers, sagely. I began rolling my eyes at the mention of it.

A lot of the brand-name stuff, especially when the big guys were first scrambling to meet demand in 2011 and 2012, was straight-up bad: slapped-together wines from extremely young vines yielding ridiculous crop loads—as much as 15 tons an acre.

I feared that the humble gains that had been made in quality Muscats, like the famous fizz of Asti, might be undone as the bottom tier fell out beneath them. I knew floral, zesty, citrusy Muscat as a connoisseur's wine of ancient pedigree. Suddenly Moscato was flashing on all the shelves. It was jarring, like seeing grandma up on stage at a Ke$ha concert.

We live in different times, though, than the eras of those other boom-and-bust wines, even the most recent. Today, the discerning imbiber sees wine in Technicolor—and there are more such tuned-in drinkers and more diversity within wine categories than ever before. "Bordeaux" can be both overpriced and stuffy and a mine of fresh, elegant bargains. Your 300,000-case Moscatos can coexist alongside Muscat de Rivesaltes.

I also think so-so Moscato actually can push the curious newbie up to premium styles; unlike Bordeaux, as little as a $10 bump separates the tiers. I even wouldn't be surprised if the flush of cheap Moscato actually triggers a backlash of cheeky somms hyping higher-end Muscat wines in the near future.

Can premium Muscat cut through the Moscato noise? I'll post tomorrow on how I think this plays out.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Katherine Jester
RIchmond VA —  November 14, 2013 9:29pm ET
Our average Moscato consumer will balk at the price for any higher tier/finer wine while they are learning. The bridge is in sweeter commercial blends, off dry Rieslings, Gewurtz and Viognier. Muscat, late harvest and botrytis wines come later.

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