The Mercury, Tasmania
17 February 2010
By Graeme Phillips
Two distinct styles of wine, made from the same grape, have experienced contrasting fortunes in Australia.
MUSCAT and moscato: wines from the same grape, but at opposite ends of the vinuous spectrum. One has long been regarded among Australia's greatest wines, the other is Australia's latest fad.
Muscats, of course, are those sumptuous, lusciously rich and ageless drops from Rutherglen in northeast Victoria, a fortified style unique to Australia but now sadly falling out of fashion.
At the other end of the scale, moscatos are the light, fluffy, fruity and often fizzy low-alcohol wines of Italy, a style becoming hugely popular here, with producers seemingly everywhere jumping on the moscato bandwagon. Jacob's Creek Moscato was even named this year's Australia Day wine.
Both muscats and moscatos are made from clones of the muscat blanc a petits grains grape, reputably the most ancient of all grape varieties. According to Jancis Robinson's Vines Grapes and Wines, the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans spread the grape throughout the Mediterranean; it was the earliest variety planted in southern France; and there is evidence of it being planted in Germany in the 12th century and in Alsace in the 16th. It is still an important variety in Greece, appears as Moscatel in Spain. In France, along with table and sparkling wines of varying quality, it produces the fashionable Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venice dessert wine.
However, the grape's real home is Italy, where it is planted through the length and breadth of the country. There it produces wines as geographically and stylistically diverse as the light moscatos and sparkling Asti Spumante of Piedmont in the northwest, and the legendary, but now rare, golden-amber, liqueur-like Moscato di Siracusa in Sicily.
While reisling might taste citrusy and cabernet remind you of blackcurrants, muscat is one of the very few varieties that produces wines that actually taste of grapes raisins in the case of Rutherglen muscats, fresh grape juice in the moscatos of Piedmont. And it is the musk-like perfume and fresh grapey-ness, as well as the low-alcohol and slip-down drinkability of the Italian moscato style that seem to be capturing the Australian palate.
The mellow richness of aged Rutherglen muscats has been described as "food, wine and a cigar in a bottle". It is a description that conjures images of smoky gentlemen's clubs and doddering waiters bringing your wine to sip while you lounge in padded, wing-back chairs. While an apt description, it's an unfair image and anyone who has any interest at all in the pleasures of great wine should have a bottle of the best muscat they can afford ready to hand out for the cheese or an after-dinner drop.
But today, like the appeal of sauvignon blanc, it's the simple, fresh and fruity spontaneous style of moscato that seems to better suit our modern, on-the-go lifestyle, particularly that of the sweeter-toothed younger generation.
And, like the Sparkling Rhinegold and Barossa Pearl of my generation, if sweetish, low-alcohol moscato introduces today's young to the joys to be had in a glass of wine, then I reckon it's a hell of a lot better than having them sucking spirituous alcopops out of a bottle or tin can.