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03/01/2012

Muscat: The Grape Behind Moscato

In wine, just like fashion, there are times when a trend seems to come out of nowhere and take the country by storm. One day you’ve never heard of a particular type or variety of wine; the next, it’s all the rage. Consider the current darling of the wine world: Moscato. In the past several years this fruity, light-bodied wine – made from the Muscat grape -- has gained a following that few could have predicted. Popularized by rap and hip-hop stars and a favorite among the generation known as Millennials, in 2011 alone sales of Moscato in the U.S. grew by nearly 70%.¹

But Muscat is not exactly new. As Jim Erickson of Erickson Farms in the Madera AVA notes, “Muscat is one of the most ancient of all grape varieties; it was probably around thousands of years back.” Grown in wine regions all over the world, the grape also has a long history in California, and was one of the first wine grape varieties to be brought to the U.S. and planted in the state. Many second and third generation California grape growers, including Jim as well as Ray Jacobsen of J & L Vineyards in the Fresno County wine growing region, remember growing up around Muscat vines.

“I used to farm Muscat with my Dad forty years ago,” recalls Ray, whose family oversees 640 acres of grapes in Fresno. “Back then a lot of it was made into raisins – Muscat raisins are really good! – but some of it went into wine.”

In the middle of the 20th century, the wines made from California’s Muscat grapes were primarily sweet: thick, syrupy and even a little Port-like. When sweet wines went out of style and other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay became popular, many Muscat vineyards were pulled out to make room for new plantings. But some farmers, primarily in the Central California growing region, continued to grow small amounts of the variety. And winemakers, who valued the grape for its intense, floral aromatics, used (and still use) Muscat as a “blender,” adding small amounts to both white and red wines to give them more oomph and character.

Today, however, Muscat is again being appreciated on its own, but in a totally different style that has come to be known as Moscato. Ray, who has seen wine trends come and go, thinks this time it might stick. “I haven’t seen too many wines take off the way Moscato has,” he says, attributing its current popularity to the fact that each winery is doing something a little different with the grape, giving consumers a range of styles to choose from. “On a hot summer day, a cool, refreshing class of sparkling Moscato is as good as it gets.”

The increasing demand for Muscat is certainly good for growers like Ray and Jim, who farm in regions well suited to Muscat of Alexandria, the type of Muscat most commonly found in the San Joaquin growing region of California. With a warm-to-hot climate and relatively deep, fertile soils, these inland growing regions are known for high quality Muscat, a vigorous variety known for its relatively high yields. In fact, Muscat vines can set so much fruit – particularly when they’re young – that the grapes can actually weigh the vines down to the point of breaking, something no grower wants.

“In those first few years you need to go in and thin the crop,” says Erickson, who farms over 1000 acres of grapes, almonds and olives with his two sons and lives on the ranch his grandfather bought in the 1920’s. “You want to be sure the vine is healthy and balanced to ensure it will continue to produce high quality fruit for many years.”

If there’s one drawback to growing Muscat, it’s that it sunburns easily. Growers like Erickson use several methods to protect the grapes, including planting cover crops and grasses that add nutrients to the soil and result in larger canopies on the grapevines – leaves that protect the delicate grapes from direct sun.

While the future of Moscato looks promising, both Ray and Jim are taking a measured approach to planting more Muscat vines. Jim, who farms 13 acres, has no current plans to plant more. Ray, who has planted 40 acres of Muscat in the last several years and who is expecting his first crop in 2012, is also waiting to see what happens next. For now though, all his grapes are spoken for, which makes him a very happy man.

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¹Franson, Paul, “Muscat Wines Steal Sauvignon Blanc’s Spot,” Wines & Vines, February 2, 2012, http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=97410&htitle=Muscat+Wines+Steal+Sauvignon+Blanc%27s+Market#.TzrsyjXDlVY.twitter

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