EVERY so often in the fall I find muscat grapes at the fruit market. Big, round, firm, and juicy, they taste like no other grape: honeyed, with the bright, sweet taste of citrus and peach. They are to Thompson seedless -- the ubiquitous green grapes -- what small, spicy Seckel pears are to vapid Bartletts, what lush fresh figs are to, say, underripe apricots. The name is probably related to "musk," because muscats, which may be the most ancient cultivated grape family, are so heavily perfumed. The grapes that are generally referred to as "muscat" at fruit markets -- actually a cross between a kind of muscat and another grape -- were developed in Italy early in this century and given a name that presaged their status as the country's most esteemed (and, usually, most expensive) table grape: Italia. Today growers of table grapes in both Italy and California favor Italia over true muscat for its bigger, hardier, prettier bunches; virtually all commercially grown muscats are either crushed for wine or dried for raisins.
Still, Italia grapes amply suggest muscats' intensity. Every so often a bunch, especially an imported one, will have dark-green, almost translucent skins streaked with yellow-gold. The flavor of even one of these grapes is so powerful that I close my eyes while the taste fills my mouth.
Once the season is over (the harvest usually ends in September, but growers with plenty of storage space ship Italia grapes almost through Christmas), I can satisfy my longing with one of the many dessert wines made from muscats. The first I ever tasted was Beaumes-de-Venise, named for a French town in the Rhône Valley. So entranced was I by its intensity that I drank and drank, unaware that the wine is so sweet because it is "fortified" -- the fermentation is arrested early with the addition of distilled spirits, before yeasts can consume all the sugar. My shaky perambulation the following day ensured that I would remember the wine.
In Italy I discovered a wine I could drink a lot of without feeling any effects -- a fizzy wine so fresh and low in alcohol that it is sometimes dismissed as being only for old ladies and children. Moscato d'Asti does not deserve to be maligned. It may not be as complex as champagne or similar sparkling wines, but it is wonderfully direct. Named for a city and province in Piedmont, in northern Italy, moscato d'Asti is often the basis for the more alcoholic, fizzier, and less distinctively flavored Asti spumante, commonly an industrial product.
True moscato d'Asti, best drunk almost as soon as it is bottled, is hard to find in this country. I particularly like that of I Vignaioli di Santo Stefano, in a sixties-style bottle shaped like a baseball bat, which I can occasionally find here. Guests are at first puzzled and then delighted by a drink that looks like champagne but is much friendlier. The hint of pear in its flavor makes moscato d'Asti a perfect match for a pear-and-almond tart; more generally, it complements anything with apples, pears, or almonds (including my always-on-hand dessert, biscotti).
For almost seventy years the Louis M. Martini winery, in the Napa Valley of California, has made America's closest equivalent to the Italian moscato d'Asti, moscato amabile, the acquisition of which has become a crusade. It is sold only at the winery and must be continuously refrigerated, lest the yeast remaining at the bottom of the bottle be reactivated by warm temperatures and produce enough additional carbon dioxide to push out the cork. (The glass is thick and won't shatter, and the flavor will only become more complex, but the "goo," as Michael Martini, the winemaker, calls it, will be extensive.) The alcohol level, around five or six percent, is almost as low as that of most beer, and the fizz, which is completely natural, is very gentle. The wine is as amiable as the name, although in Italy amabile is a technical term meaning medium-sweet. Even sophisticated fellow winemakers line up to buy Martini's moscato amabile, which, being more or less homemade, follows its own schedule. One year's bottling usually vanishes well before the next year's is ready.
Other American winemakers have fallen in love with muscat too, and restaurant-goers anywhere in the country are likely to find on the menu a muscat wine or two from California or Oregon or Washington. The makers of these new muscats have chosen to imitate not the Italian but any of several German methods used for a number of hard-to-pronounce wines made with late-harvested grapes. (The wondrous and versatile riesling, the grape used in many of these wines, is finally beginning to get the respect it has long been denied in the mistaken equation of "sophisticated" with "dry.") Though almost never as low in alcohol or as effervescent as moscato d'Asti, these American muscat wines are lower in alcohol than most, and much less potent than Beaumes-de-Venise and its fortified cousins. The sweetness comes from the grapes, which are picked when they are a good deal higher in sugar than other wine grapes. Although far from acidic, many of the wines have the snap of citrus -- one of the chief characteristics of muscat grapes, along with hints of apricot, honey, and peach. Muscat wines are neither cloying nor overwhelmingly potent, as fortified wines, however luscious, can often be.
California muscats have had to overcome the Skid Row image they acquired during and after Prohibition, when cheap fortified muscatels became the poor man's brandy. On a recent harvesttime trip to northern California I spoke with a number of the winemakers who have rescued muscat's reputation. I also got my hands on true muscat grapes. After years of thinking that Italia offered the most flavor possible in one bite of grape, I found out what I'd been missing.