Muscat grapes are one of the great friends of The Lighter Drinker, producing as they some very low ABV, naturally fermented wines starting at around 5%.
These grapes have their origins in the Piedmont Region of Italy, where they are known as Moscato. The name is also used in the USA where the anglicised Muscatel version of the name is now generally reserved only for higher alcohol dessert wines.
These Italian wines come from a noble tradition, that dates back millennia. They were common across the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean. The Romans called the wine apiana, meaning a bee wine, appropriate given its naturally honey flavours and Muscat of Alexandria, produced on the Greek island Samos, was Cleopatra’s favourite wine.
There are in fact over 200 varieties of the Muscat grape, and their striking and most unusual feature is that they produce wines that actually taste of grapes. Remarkably, when one reflects on it, most wines don’t actually taste of grapes! The aroma is typically sweet and perfumed and is often described as “musky”. But this can cause confusion, other grapes which sometimes exhibit this musky taste have adopted the name, such as the Bordeaux Muscadel and the German Morio Muskat. Even more confusing, the Loire Muscadet has nothing to do with either the grape family nor their flavour.
Key to any lower ABV wines is the fermentation process. For the Piedmont Moscato wines, an arrested, chilled fermentation is used. This has the downside of leaving high residual sugar levels so inevitably these wines do tend to be at best semi-dry if not sweet. The wines that are less sweet are mostly fully fermented, and then their ABV’s are higher, up to 15% for many of the dessert wines such as the Spanish Moscatel de Valencia.
The long history of Muscat grapes has produced many different wines, some of which are lower in alcohol and delicious. For the Lighter Drinker, the ones to look out for are:
- The Italian Piedmont Moscato d’Asti which typically carry a 5% to 6% ABV and in which, in their best cases, the natural sweetness of the wines in counter balanced by a delightful natural spritz (or frizzante fizz) and a happy acidity. See for example our 4-star recommended Araldica Mosato d’Asti. But if you find this still a little sweet (which many will), I do recommend you try the similar but slightly dryer 5.5% Brachetto d’Acqui which comes from the same region but uses a red Brachetto grape – see our 4.5 star rated Alasia Brachetto d’Acqui.
- From the same region and grapes comes the fully sparkling Asti Spumante, often found at around an 8% ABV. These too are rather sweet and I’ve yet to find one I can really enthuse about.
- You can also find some low ABV still Muscats, of which the most commonly found are the Californian Moscato versions which are quite widely drunk (6% of the US market in 2016 according to Wines and Vines) and frequently found in UK supermarkets. These are very good value, at best semi-dry but, with a slightly higher ABV (typically 9%) that balances their muscat sweetness they make a good addition to the Light Drinker’s repertoire. See for example our 4-star rated Barefoot Moscato. You can also find Pink Moscato versions of these wines where a little Merlot has been added; this adds a little colour but I’ve yet to understand any other advantage.