Muscat — A Guide to the Basics

·6 min read
Muscat wine being poured into a glass
Muscat wine being poured into a glass

New Africa / Shutterstock

Perhaps more than any other family of grapes, Muscat is associated with a single style of wine. If you go strictly by reputation, any wine crafted from Muscat will be assumed to be defined by sweetness. There are certainly plenty of examples for which that reputation is entirely accurate, but sweetness only scratches the surface of what grapes in the Muscat family are capable of. While the majority of Muscat-based wines on the market are indeed sweet, or at least possess a sweeter character, the best of them are also capable of serious complexity and framing food in particularly fascinating ways. Sweetness and nuance, in other words, can definitely go hand in hand.

What is Muscat Wine?

Muscat wine is any wine that's produced from a grape variety in the Muscat family. Yet within the Muscat family of grapes – over 200 of them, by some counts! – there are several important clones and production techniques that will help determine the character of the liquid in the glass. Moscato d'Asti, for example, is sweeter and less fizzy than Asti Spumante, which is produced from the same Moscato Bianco grape variety. And Zibibbo di Pantelleria (often called Passito di Pantelleria) is sweet but made using completely different techniques and possesses no bubbles whatsoever. The range of Muscat-based wines is broad and fascinating.

Where Does Muscat Wine Come From?

The Muscat family of grapes has many constituent varieties, from Moscato Bianco to Muscat of Alexandria and beyond. The name of each is often associated with a particular place, but that doesn't mean that all of them can only grow in one region or appellation. In fact, many of them grow in countless countries and regions. The most well-known of them, however, come from Italy, where the sparkling (or semi-sparkling) Muscat-based wines of the Piedmont region have achieved worldwide renown. The Muscat-based sweet wines from Sicily are perhaps less widely known but every bit as worthy of attention. Excellent Muscat is also produced in California, Texas, and beyond, and some winemakers are even producing remarkable dry Muscat-based wines, which allows their more floral and spicy nuances to shine through with assertiveness.

Of particular note is the remarkable Zibibbo di Pantelleria, which can only come from the volcanic island of Pantelleria where Zibibbo, the local name for the Muscat of Alexandria variety, grows on bush vines. After harvest, the grapes are laid out to dry in the sun, after which they're pressed and vinified into sweet wine without bubbles. The results, at their best, are ambrosial. Great Muscats can be found from Alsace, too, as well as Germany. In California, producers like Bonterra and Cruse make notable examples, and in Australia, fortified Muscat reaches serious heights of achievement. Yalumba produces particularly notable ones, as does Seppeltsfield. Muscat is also sometimes used as a base for vermouth, as with Lo-Fi Aperitif''s excellent bottlings.

Why Should You Drink Muscat Wine?

Muscat wines have the ability to appeal to a wide range of tastes and budgets, which alone makes them worth exploring in greater depth. Whether you prefer sweet wines or dry ones, or even wines that are somewhere in between, the Muscat family of grapes will work. As far as pricing goes, Muscat wines can be found for less than $10 and more than $50.

Muscat wines are a great example of how reputation often fails to tell the whole story of any grape variety or family of grapes. If you were to ask most consumers to describe what Muscat wines taste like, most would likely reference sweetness, and some would say that they're sparkling. But Muscat wines offer so much more than those attributes, and from dry to sweet and from still to sparkling, the wines offer far more range and nuance that they often get credit for.

They also are very food friendly: Given their often exuberant fruit, floral attributes, and spice notes, Muscat wines easily pair with foods that boast similar characteristics. Aromatically complex dishes like some Thai curries sing with many Muscats. They can stand up to spice heat, especially Moscato d'Asti and Asti Spumante, which have far lower alcohol than many other wines on the market (usually around 5.5% abv for the former, and the latter tops out at 9%). And sweeter expressions of Muscat wine are excellent counterpoints to salty foods, though they of course pair well with certain sweeter dishes, too. Cheesecake and Moscato d'Asti, for example, is fantastic, and it works wonders alongside cannoli. But don't discount the joy of Moscato d'Asti paired with Doritos, either!

What Does Muscat Taste Like?

Muscat wines tend to showcase floral and spicy characteristics, with fruit that falls toward the tropical, peach, nectarine, and apricot end of the spectrum. Hints of ginger and lemongrass are common, as are jasmine, honey, and lychee. Yet given the sheer range of grapes that are members of the Muscat family and depending on how it's made, Muscat can express itself with a far greater range than it typically gets credit for.

When drinking Muscat wines, serving temperature is key: The cooler you serve it, the more amplified the acidity will be, and the less pronounced the sweetness. Slightly less-cool temperatures will allow the more floral, tropical-fruit, and sweet aspects to shine through. And while it's often difficult to find the specific type of Muscat on a wine bottle's label (Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Canelli, Moscato Bianco, Muscat à Petits Grains, which can be found in rouge or blanc versions, etc.), the majority of them share a similar core set of characteristics.

Five Great Muscat Wines

There are countless great Muscat wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Muscat has to offer.

Donnafugata

One of the great producers of Sicily, Donnafugata makes standout white, red, and sweet wine, particularly the Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, which is produced from Zibibbo, better known as Muscat of Alexandria. This stands as one of the legendary sweet wines of the world.

Maeili

Among a roster of other notable wines, the Moscato Giallo Vino Frizzante is a standout from Maeli, a pet'nat whose savoriness serves as a perfect foil for the fruit. This is one of the most fascinating, unexpected Moscatos on the market today.

Marchesi di Gresy

Among a portfolio of top-quality Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto, and more, Marchesi di Gresy also produces two excellent Moscatos: The Moscato d'Asti "La Serra" and another called L'Altro Moscato Piemonte Moscato Passito. Both are worth seeking out.

Vietti

Best known for their delicious Barbera, Dolcetto, and Barolo bottlings, Vietti also produces an excellent Moscato d'Asti, which represents one of the most nuanced and complex expressions of the sweet, gently sparkling wine in Piedmont.

Yalumba

One of the most well-known producers of Shiraz and Viognier in Australia is also a master of fortified Muscat. If you see a bottle of Antique Muscat, snap it up, and then pair it with a bowl of vanilla ice cream: They're delicious together.