From white through yellow, gold and sepia, pink, red, and black, muscat grapes come in all different shades. Their berries vary in shape and size, too. In fact, the group of intensely fragrant table and wine grapes known collectively as muscat defy traditional botanical classification. This ancient grape has been known and cultivated for millennia, initially flourishing around the edges of the hot Mediterranean. As a result hundreds of varieties of muscat have evolved or been bred, through natural and deliberate hybridization, and modern propagation for different climates and characteristics. Many have seeds, but recent cultivars may be seedless. Some muscat are small and round, and others are large and oblong. What all these grapes have in common is a defining perfume. While it will vary from one variety to another, all ripe muscats share a spicy, floral, honeyed aroma.
Wine expert Jancis Robinson describes muscat blanc à petit grains as possibly "the oldest and noblest variety of muscat," in The Oxford Companion to Wine, and lauds it as having the finest of all muscat flavors. Its small berries come in all hues and it was grown by the Romans in Gaul (France), and possibly before them by the Greeks near Marseilles. There are records of its use in Germany in the 12th century. As a result of its peregrinations, it goes by many names or synonyms, some very familiar: muscat blanc, Muscat of Frontignon, Frontignac, muscat d’Alsace, moscato bianco, brown muscat (Australia), muskadel (South Africa), white muscat, and more. If you are drinking a fizzy, fruity Italian moscato, this is the grape.
The storied Muscat d'Alexandrie produces larger, oblong, very sweet berries, and is associated with hot climates. Think Australia, South Africa, California, Chile, Greece, and Spain. As its name suggests, it is thought to have originated in Egypt and have been spread initially by the tirelessly traveling Romans. In wine making terms it is snobbishly dismissed as yielding syrupy wines that lack finesse, and it is traditionally used to make fortified wines. In South Africa the grape is known as Hanepoot and it is prized as an early autumn table grape, at its ripest when it is a plump, golden-brown. In that country whole, dried bunches of the grape also make impressive raisin centerpieces on cheese boards.
Muscat makes a wonderful table or eating grape. Look for imported Muscat d'Alexandrie in American supermarkets in the spring (which is fall in the Southern Hemisphere) and fall (usually from Italy). They are best eaten fresh; simply washed and picked straight from the beautiful bunch so the unique flavor is undiminished. There may be no finer seasonal dessert. Their cooked sweetness does work very well with autumn squash, and with meats like pork and duck. A handful stuffed into a roasting chicken with some branches of thyme makes a lip-licking pan sauce. If you happen to have a surplus of muscat grapes (lucky you), pulse them in a food processor, strain them (if they are seeded) and semi-freeze the juice in batches. Serve in tall glasses when ice crystals form. There is almost nothing as decadently good as a chilly muscat slushy.