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What Happens When the Moscato Music Stops? Part 2

Is the mass-market fizz pulling up the premium styles? And what does the future hold for Muscat once the bubble bursts?

Posted: Nov 15, 2013 10:15am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

In yesterday's installment, I wondered how the mass-market Moscato craze might affect higher-end Muscat wines. Would they cheapen the image of the wine?

A few years ago, I wrote a feature about Jorge Ordóñez & Co., a relatively new winemaking outfit from the heavyweight Spanish importer, in the foothills surrounding his native city of Málaga. The wines of the region were typically sweet wines made from Moscatel de Alejandría grapes left to raisinate on the vine or on straw mats. Ordóñez began making four wines in this style, plus a dry Moscatel called Botani.

My visit in 2010 predated the Moscato madness, so I shot an e-mail to Victoria Ordóñez (she oversees operations on the ground) asking if the thirst for Moscato had swelled upward past the $9 price point to wines of Ordóñez's caliber—the Botani retails at about $17. Sales were indeed up.

"We are very much aware of the popularity of Moscatel grapes in the U.S.," she wrote, and the company just launched an Asti-style Moscatel sparkler, which it views as a success already. Victoria concluded that "the continuous increase in sales in the latest years" across the Ordóñez lineup was clear evidence that buyers were gobbling up their brand of Muscat, too.

That seemed to track for the proud vintners of northern Italy as well, when I called last year. Matteo Marenghi, director of the Oltrepò Pavese DOCG, told me that growers felt vindicated after keeping the flame burning for a traditional style long beloved by them but few others. Moscato had been a dessert-only wine, marginalized; now people clamored for it. There were other benefits: "In Italy, there's a crisis now, so vinegrowers are not planting new vineyards, but they are planting Moscato."

Moscato is often cited as a gateway wine, but I'd also argue it's a gateway to a more difficult category of wine, specifically: dessert wine. The wines of Asti are delicate and off-dry, but sweet Muscats from all over the world—even the full-throttle fortified ones—are usually zippy and fresh too. A newcomer to dessert wines may find, say, a Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise from the Rhône Valley lighter in body than thick and heady trockenbeerenauslese German Rieslings and fruitier than nutty old Vin Santos—basically, more accessible.

Moscato has historically been sweet, sparkly or both. (Ordóñez and late collaborator Alois Kracher heatedly debated at the outset about whether they should even make a dry Moscatel, with Kracher's aye prevailing.) But winemakers are now vinifying complex and exuberant dry versions in northeast Italy's Friuli and Trentino-Alto Adige regions, Alsace, Chile and southern Spain. These bottlings give Muscat its rightful place at the table of aromatic varieties.

My best hope is that the Moscato craze will do for Muscat what white Zinfandel did for red: leave behind swatches of aging vines that can deliver power and concentration in dry wines.

Really, Moscato mania is nothing new. It's one of the few grapes grown today that we know the ancient Greeks and Romans cherished. Napoleon famously kept Constantia at his side while dying in exile—yes, South Africa's most iconic wine is a Muscat. So let's hope that faddishness doesn't doom a grand yet joyful wine, and that we'll continue exploring Moscato in its many guises, as a wine of the future instead of the current financial quarter.

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

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  November 17, 2013 12:18pm ET
I hope you're right. Muscat grapes make great sipping wine (which is how most of American drinks its wine, anyway) in a wide variety of styles. Something for everyone, if we can get over our prejudices.

But to me, the present Moscato craze in the U.S. is just the latest iteration of a longstanding preference for something light, sweet and fragrant, in the long line that started with Liebrfaumilch in the 1970s and continued with white Zin. Frankly sweetened California Chardonnays followed, but more to provide something called Chardonnay to those who didn't really like bone-dry wines. I don't believe that led to a rush on crisp, minerally white Burgundies, and very sweet dessert wines are still pretty much a blip on the radar for most wine drinkers, despite the popular categories of lightly sweet wines over the years.
Stefano Poggi
San Diego, CA, USA —  November 21, 2013 10:43am ET
This is one of the best reasoned Moscato articles I have read in awhile. Usually wine writers are quick to condemn and overlook the positive influence and styles of Moscato in the world.

Full disclosure: I do work for a winery that makes some Moscato.

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