If Captain & Tenille had only eliminated the letter ‘’r’’ from their 1972 hit single, muscat might have had more love. Like the bubbly muskrats featured in the pop song Muskrat Love, the muscat grape variety whirls, twirls and tangoes. In fact muscat is one of the few varieties that can be served throughout a multi-course meal in a lively range of styles. Widely acknowledged as one of the oldest domesticated grape varieties in existence, muscat colour ranges from white to black and is grown for wine as well as table grapes and raisins. Technically muscat is a white grape, but many varieties are lightly tinted pink or reddish brown. The same muscat vine can idiosyncratically produce berries of one colour one year and a different hue the next.
Muscat’s ancient heritage has caused speculation that most grape varieties used in wine production today – the vitis vinifera specifies – are descended from the muscat clan. Not surprisingly, the muscat diaspora can be found in every wine and grape growing region in the world. There are many muscat strains, but all share pronounced grapey and floral aromas with a musky undertone purported to have aphrodisiac qualities. Muscat blanc à petits grains, a French name that references small white grape berries, is considered the highest quality muscat subspecies, with the other common varieties being Muscat Ottonel and Muscat of Alexandria, all three of which are known by innumerable synonyms worldwide. In South Africa, Muscat of Alexandria is known as hanepoot, which literally means cockerel’s foot reportedly due to the shape of the vine’s leaves. Other punters contend that hanepoot is a distortion of the word hanekloot, which means cockerel’s testicles, due to the spherical shape of the grapes themselves. The lack of volunteers available to perform an inquiry leaves the veracity of this claim unconfirmed. Perhaps the bird-handlers at our defunct wet markets could weigh in on the dispute.
Muscat is probably best known for producing sweet wines from southern France called Vin Doux Naturels (VDN) – an odd name given that there’s nothing ‘’naturel’’ about the production of this wine style. Shortly after the VDN grapes are crushed, the sweet grape juice is liberally doused with distilled spirits halting all potential yeast activity. The resulting white wine is spirity, sweet and grapey, which makes it a popular chilled aperitif on a hot summer evening. In her best-seller book, French Women Do Not Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano argues sweet wines before a meal aid in reducing the temptation to overeat. This advice is somewhat along the lines of my mum’s admonitions, “don’t eat that candy, young lady, you’ll spoil your appetite.” Top VDN origins include Beaumes de Venise, Rivesaltes, Frontignan and St.-Jean-de-Minervois among others.
After the bracing VDN aperitif, serve lightly spiced prawns with a dry muscat from Alsace, a region which produces elegant dry muscat, such as Trimbach’s subtle orange-blossom scented 2007 or Albert Mann’s fresh citrusy example. Crispy roasted Cantonese chicken or a spicy Thai curry could follow with a juicy late harvest muscat from Alsace, such as René Muré’s orange blossom perfumed Domaine St. Landelin Muscat Vendange Tardive 2004. Italy produces muscat in various forms, but by far its most popular styles are Asti or the distinctive Moscato d’Asti . These medium sweet, lightly sparkling wines are a lovely pre-dessert palate cleanser or a lively match with thin slices of salty Italian cheeses (served alongside dried muscat raisins, of course). The piece de resistance in the muscat-love meal is a fabulously rich dark muscat from Rutherglen, Australia. Though most sunny wine regions craft muscat into sweet golden wines, none offer the aged complexity, mahogany colour and treacle-like richness of these fig-flavoured Australian stickies. As the schmaltzy 1970’s duo trilled, “it’s pretty pleasin’.