Sweetness and Light

Wines for dessert that are neither cloying nor overwhelming.

Muscat grapes

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.

ROBERT Pecota was checking a tank of muscat "must" when I visited his small winery, north of the tourist-magnet town of St. Helena, in the Napa Valley, toward the end of this year's protracted and abundant grape harvest. Must is not simply grape juice, as it is often incorrectly said to be: it is the liquid that comes out of a grape crusher, thick with bits of stem, skin, seeds, and pulp. These contain many of the natural yeasts that speed fermentation. With such sweet grapes Pecota's goal is to slow fermentation, in order to develop the best flavor. He was checking to see that the cool temperature at which he was storing the must was sufficiently slowing the action of the yeast.

The grapes had come from the vineyard of Bruno and Tony Solari, Pecota's neighbors, who grow white muscat -- the variety considered the finest and most fragrant in France and Italy. Tony Solari later told me that two years ago he and Bruno planted four more acres of white muscats, at the request of another vintner -- a significant investment in the Napa Valley, where with four acres you can practically start a winery.

Pecota had kindly yielded to my telephone entreaty to ask his neighbors to bring over a few bunches of the grapes they were busy picking. Bees appeared over the colander as soon as Pecota took the grapes out of the refrigerator; so popular is muscat with insects (an alternate derivation of the name is from musca, the Latin for "fly") that growers can lose five to 15 percent of a muscat planting to bees. Perhaps in self-defense, the grapes are thick-skinned ("tough as basketballs," Pecota said), which makes them difficult to press. The resistant skins also mean that muscats are less susceptible than other families to botrytis, which in its benevolent form is called "noble rot" for its ability to concentrate sugar without imparting off-flavors. In the cooler climates of Europe noble rot is necessary to concentrate the sugar in riesling grapes, for the sweetest German wines, and in sauterne grapes, for the legendary Château d'Yquem. The California sun and warm climate, along with the grapes' durability, allow muscats to develop the high level of sugar that vintners need.

I sought out Pecota because in a tasting of every California muscat I could find -- along with a few Italian moscatos, for comparison -- his seemed the truest reflection of the grape itself. Pecota makes many kinds of wine, but he has become particularly known for his dessert muscat wine. The Italian moscato d'Asti was delightfully fresh and fizzy, the muscat flavor flirtatiously ducking in and out of view. (I was severely disappointed to learn that the Martini winery, which I passed many times during my visit, was sold out of moscato amabile.) And I was impressed with the syrupy power of the fortified Essensia wine from Quady, a winery in Madera that chiefly makes dessert wines from different varieties of muscat, including black muscat, named for its deep color, and orange muscat, a particularly fragrant and hard-to-grow variety named for its orange-blossom scent rather than for the taste of the fruit. But Quady emulates Beaumes-de-Venise, stopping the fermentation with distilled spirits and keeping the wine sweet, dense, and potent. With its afterkick of alcoholic heat, Essensia is better as a cordial to sip after dinner than as a wine to drink with dessert. The object of his muscat, Pecota told me, is to "carry through" the taste of the grape into the wine. This goal is different from the usual stamp a winemaker likes to put on a particular blend.

Other winemakers choose various ways to concentrate the sweetness and flavor, using the strategies evolved over centuries by European winemakers working in cool climates. Pecota told me that his muscat is made like the German Auslese, a wine whose name means "selected harvest," because the grapes are picked when ripe and sweet. This year's growing season was so long and dry that he was also able to make a wine corresponding to the German Trockenbeerenauslese, a rare and expensive late-harvest wine whose name refers to grapes with an extremely high sugar content, usually the result of noble rot. This year's weather enabled the Solaris to leave some muscats on the vine long enough for the grapes to develop the same high level of sugar from sunlight alone. Sensibly, Pecota doesn't use the German name; instead he calls his wine Sweet Andrea, for one of his daughters.

A young winemaker in Spokane, Washington, also uses muscat to imitate an Alsatian wine. But Henning Knipprath, whose four-year-old winery I discovered on the Internet, takes "off-dry," or lightly sweet, rieslings as his model for a dinner rather than a dessert wine (Knipprath muscat is distributed in western states, or you can order it by phone; the number is 509-624-9132). He recommends pairing his muscat with Cajun or Thai food -- as does Pecota, who says, "You want to put out the fire before you go to beer."

STILL more rare and expensive in Germany is Eiswein, named for grapes harvested so late that they have actually frozen on the vine. The labor involved sounds like something out of Hans Christian Andersen, but the concentration of sweetness and flavor is matchlessly intense: when the frozen grapes are crushed, they release only their syrup, which defrosts first. The winemaker discards the watery pulp that remains behind.

Randall Grahm, an iconoclastic winemaker and a cut-up appreciated nearly as much for his pun-filled and erudite labels and newsletters as for his innovative and excellent wines, wondered why he needed to wait for a frost -- something unlikely in any case in northern California; his winery takes its name, Bonny Doon, from the part of Santa Cruz where Grahm first grew grapes. Grahm, who is always planting underappreciated grapes and experimenting with offbeat techniques, stuck some ripe muscats into the freezer, reasoning that the grapes wouldn't know the difference. Cold storage would also allow him to make the wine after the main harvest, giving him something to do in the off-season.

This experiment worked -- so well that Bonny Doon's Vin de Glacière (French for "refrigerator") has, with no advertising, become the most-ordered dessert wine in American restaurants. Grahm blends white and orange muscats with malvasia bianca, another white grape with an ancient lineage, to obtain the sugar level and "almost digital muscat" flavor he wants, with hints of tangerine, peach, and pineapple. His "VdG," as he refers to it, is a delicious wine, more concentrated than Pecota's and full of the grape's floral fragrance. At about $15 for a 375-milliliter bottle, it's an excellent introduction to muscat. Once you fall in love with the grape, you can try Pecota's more accurate, if comparatively subdued, portrait of it (the same size bottle costs about $9).

Grahm, an incurable tinkerer, promises to make a moscato d'Asti. He has already tried several times. When I visited him, he literally held his head in his hands as he recounted his efforts over the years to conquer the problems of filtering, carbonating, and bottling it -- an effort he likens to "making microchips or sending somebody to the moon." (To be among the first to know when he succeeds, and to have a crack at tasting other experiments, you can sign up as a member of Grahm's organization D.E.W.N., for "Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network," by calling 408-425-4518; for an annual fee D.E.W.N. will keep you in puns and new bottlings.)

In the meantime, those not planning a trip to the Martini winery in a car equipped with a cooler can try the latest release from Quady: Electra, its only nonfortified wine, which has only four percent alcohol and is named for the almost imperceptible fizz that remains after the wine is filtered and bottled. This is thinner than any of the other California muscats, without the tingle of a sparkling wine which makes you forget about how dense it is or isn't. But Electra is lovely and refreshing, and a reminder that muscats are as sumptuous and delicious and purely grapey as wines can get.


The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; Sweetness and Light; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 113-116.