Six years ago, headlines boldly declared America to be in the grips of “Moscato Madness,” before the wine tumbled out of fashion. Yet, Moscato held court long before that, and will do so for a time long to come.
The Muscat Grape
The word “Moscato” may conjure images of sweet, pink bubbly wine, but it’s technically just the Italian word for the Muscat family of grapes. Multiple varieties grow throughout Italy and the world, and are made into still, sparkling, sweet and fortified wines.
Moscato Bianco (a k a Muscat blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Blanc and Muscat Canelli) is considered the noblest of the family and has been cultivated for at least 800 years. It’s also the variety responsible for the most recent Moscato boom as the base of Moscato d’Asti, the style that many commercial brands seek to emulate.
The Moscato d’Asti appellation is located within the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont. In 1993, it earned Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status, Italy’s highest wine classification—reserved for the country’s most classic, expressive wines.
DOCG certifies that the wine comes from a delineated place, is made using a specific method and uses traditional grapes. In the case of Moscato d’Asti, that style is fresh, fruity, gently fizzy, sweet and low in alcohol, at around 5% abv. Its signature, however, is in its aromatics. They burst from the glass with apricot, peach, tangerine, rose, orange blossom and even lychee, with a singular “grapey” quality seldom found in other wines.
“The challenge has been opening people’s eyes to the fact that Moscato can exist outside of the category of ‘sweet wines,’ ” —Heidi Barrett, La Sirena
It may come as a surprise that such a lighthearted wine hails from the same region famous for Nebbiolo, a grape elevated to its highest expression in savory, tannic, ageworthy Barolo and Barbaresco. In fact, Moscato Bianco is the No. 2 variety grown in Piedmont behind Barbera, and many Barolo producers have long made Moscato d’Asti. It’s been called a “winemaker’s wine,” as they often fermented it for personal enjoyment.
“The Moscato Bianco variety has called Piedmont home for centuries,” says Stefano Chiarlo, enologist at family-owned Michele Chiarlo. “The grape was first officially recorded in the 13th-century on statues in the town of Canelli.”
Chiarlo likes working with Moscato since, he says, “it is a native grape that produces a wine that is neither too heavy, nor too sweet and pairs well with more than just dessert.” He believes these attributes are the secret to its huge success on the international market.
Moscato d’Asti isn’t the only sweet fizz made from Moscato Bianco in Piedmont. The appellation of Asti pumps out large volumes of aromatic bubbles, some labeled as Asti Spumante. After it earned DOCG status, producers dropped the word spumante (which means “fully sparkling”) to elevate the wine’s perception.
It can be easy to confuse wines from Asti DOCG and Moscato d’Asti DOCG, but there are distinct differences. Asti is semi-sweet and higher in alcohol, at around 9% abv. Unlike Asti, Moscato d’Asti is frizzante, or semi-sparkling, and can safely be sealed with a regular still wine cork.
Depending on the producer, the other perceptible difference is quality. Moscato d’Asti has earned a reputation for superiority because it receives the healthiest, ripest grapes to create the wine’s delicate, floral style. Less ripe, greener grapes are designated for Asti, guided by the theory that the wine’s sparkling nature and residual sugar will compensate.
Where does moscato stand today?
Sweet, fragrant and fizzy, it’s easy to see why Moscato rose from obscurity to fashionable in a few short years. In 2012, Nielsen reported a 100 percent jump in sales for sparkling Moscato in the U.S., which inspired California farmers to add new plantings.
But booms often go bust. Many producers copied the Italian sparklers with cheap, derivative wines from high-yield vines. A 2017 Silicon Valley Bank report on the state of the American wine industry noted, “whenever growers follow a trend, it is seemingly already over right at the time the plants are producing.” Moscato still sells well, but its breakneck growth has tapered to a modest pace.
“Wine [varieties] tend to go through cycles,” says Jessica Tomei, winemaker for Cupcake Vineyards, “Having said that, Moscato is still a strong category for us. We have both a Moscato and a Moscato d’Asti…It’s a wine I enjoy, and enjoy making, so I will continue to do so. However, we also know rosé and sparkling rosé are having a moment now.”
Fortunately, Moscato is firmly established in the canon of grapes. And beyond the Italian expressions and their knockoffs, there’s a world of high-quality Moscato in a variety of styles.
In California, Heidi Barrett makes a splendid version for her La Sirena label called Moscato Azul. Working with the grape as Muscat Canelli, she ferments it to nearly dry, resulting in an abv of around 13 percent. Her daughter, Remi Barrett, says that the Moscato craze helped raise awareness, but it came with a cost.
“The challenge has been opening people’s eyes to the fact that Moscato can exist outside of the category of ‘sweet wines,’ ” she says. “The surge in popularity of Moscato about five years ago was great in some ways, because it brought a lot more public attention and some new wine drinkers.
“On the other hand, all that publicity cemented in many people’s minds, ‘Moscato is a sweet wine, and I don’t like sweet wine.’ Our biggest challenge with the Moscato Azul is convincing people to try it. Happily, once they do, they almost always love it.”
In Lodi, California, LangeTwins makes a still, semi-sweet version loaded with notes of cherry and peach. In Brazil, Casa Perini’s foamy and sweet Moscatel seduces with aromas of lychee and gardenia, while in Israel, Golan Heights Winery makes a sweet, bright expression.
Regardless of its ups and downs, Moscato is everywhere, as it has always been. The difference is that more people know about it now than ever before. And that’s a good thing.
Moscato Bottles to Try
LaStella 2013 Moscato d’Osoyoos Moscato (Okanagan Valley); $20, 92 points. This irresistible, lightly frizzante and utterly refreshing wine is a gem. Orange flesh and rind has a slightly candied potency, with outstanding purity, focus and length. In spite of the sweetness, it retains offsetting minerality and acidity, making it a perfect apéritif or brunch wine. Editor’s Choice. —Paul Gregutt
La Sirena 2013 Moscato Azul Dry Muscat Canelli (Calistoga); $30, 91 points. Almost clear in color, this wine has pungently floral aromas of honeysuckle that pave the way for sizzling acidity and fresh layers of peach and lime zest to complement one another on the palate. Refreshing, light bodied and dry, this is a wonderful additional to any arsenal of aromatic wines for summertime enjoyment. Editor’s Choice. —Virginie Boone
Abbazia di Novacella 2015 Praepositus Moscato Rosa (Alto Adige); $37, 90 points. Made entirely with Moscato Rosa, this boasts heady scents of rose petal, wild strawberry and a hint of lavender. The silky palate delivers raspberry jam, candied orange zest and a hint of cake spice. Refreshing acidity nicely offsets the sweetness. —Kerin O’Keefe
LangeTwins 2016 Estate Grown Moscato (Clarksburg); $15, 90 points. Rose petal and lychee aromas highlight this semisweet, richly textured wine. Peach and maraschino cherry flavors tumble with the floral notes and spill over to the lingering finish. Best Buy. —Jim Gordon
Planeta 2016 Bianco Moscato (Noto); $14, 90 points. Aromas of white rose, citrus and yellow stone fruit are front and center on this dry, vibrant white. The tangy palate doles out apricot, grapefruit and a saline note alongside crisp acidity that gives it a quenching close. Best Buy. —K.O.
Michele Chiarlo 2015 Moscato d’Asti; $19, 89 points.This fragrant, foaming dessert wine opens with aromas of yellow stone fruit, chopped herb and a floral note of jasmine. The rich, bright palate doles out apricot, yellow peach, grilled sage and candied nectarine zest alongside a delicate mousse and fresh acidity. —K.O.
Casa Perini NV Moscatel (Vale Trentino); $20, 88 points. Attractive aromas of gardenia, lemon-lime soda and lychee fruit set up a full foamy sugar-enriched palate with an acidic cut. Quick easy flavors of green melon and lychee are lasting on the finish. If you like sparking Moscato, this is your type of wine. —Michael Schachner
Fulkerson 2015 Juicy Sweet Table Wine Moscato (Finger Lakes); $14, 88 points. Fun and ebulliently fruity, this medium-sweet Moscato offers deep, concentrated tangerine, fresh grape and stone-fruit flavors. It’s a touch candied but refreshingly brisk on the finish. —Anna Lee C. Iijima
Golan Heights Winery 2016 Hermon Moscato (Galilee); $14, 87 points. With aromas of white peach and honeysuckle, this wine has flavors of ripe peach, marzipan and orange blossom. It is sweet but not cloying, with a burst of refreshing brightness on the finish. —Mike DeSimone