Muscat(s)! A two thousand year old name (Persian muchk, Greek moskos) for the fragrance derived from the gland of the male musk deer, and so synonymous with perfume: ‘muscat’ can be one of over 200 distinct white, pinkish, or black-berried varieties grown all over the world.
They were selected because you could smell them just by pressing them; they were propagated across the Mediterranean world, like malvasias, for their productivity and ability to ripen to high sugars. You could eat them out of hand at the table, or plant them at the end of rows for pickers to snack on; you could dry them on straw mats and ferment them into strong, honeyed wines that could survive sea voyages.
They were named for the ports they were traded out of and the islands they departed: Lemnos and Samos, Málaga and Alexandria. In Sicily, the local name for muscat of Alexandria, zibbibo, comes from the Arabic for ‘raisin’; in Algeria, one of its names was fandouk, ‘trading post’.
Muscat vines are long-lived, survivors; they can still grow and produce at a century old, two centuries, three. They’re testaments to the priorities and desires of people who lived and died a long, long time ago. And the living wines they can make, sometimes with a touch of skin contact, jasmine-scented or smelling of orange blossoms or daffodils or honeysuckle, zippy and bone-dry on the palate or melting in the mouth, are wines to love, even if the suggestion of sugar has gone from precious to déclassé, and the Italian name for muscat has been transformed into a global beverage brand.
Class was on Monday, March 29th. We drank volcanic, smoky muscat à petit grains from Sous le Végétal on Samos, in the Aegean; sparkling skin-contact moscato giallo from Maeli, southwest of Padua, in the Veneto; and transparent, ruby-red moscatel tinto at a dangerous! but reeaaally lovely to drink 14% from Cara Sur, in the Valle de Calingasta (possibly a petit grains color mutation? or muscat of Alexandria? or muscat of Hamburg?! if you know what 5,000 ft elevation red-berried muscat in Argentina next to moscato bianco and criolla chica is likely to be, let me know!).
A short list of other personal favorites for your future muscat drinking:
Petit Domaine de Gimios, sparklings both dry and moelleux, red-berried in its field blend, and still as well (Languedoc)
Matassa, “Cuvée Marguerite” (Roussillon)
Garalis, skin contact, blended with a splash of limnio, etc (Lemnos)
Gabriel Bini, wild child (Pantelleria)
Capovilla, moscato giallo grappa! (Veneto)
Bera, O.G. moscato d’Asti the real way (Piedmont)
Leo Erazo, single sites/ancient vines/concrete and clay (Itata)
Margins, springtime in a glass (Contra Costa)
Zind-Humbrecht & Laurent Barth, lovely and I don’t mind a kiss of sugar (Alsace)
Wenzel, “Wild & Free”, skin-contact gelber muskateller (Burgenland)