Catching it before it slips


Wine: Muscat can be delectable, but it's got a short life, so make careful choices when buying.

May 03, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Wine Critic

If David Letterman were to do a Top-10 list of worst names for wine grapes, muscat would be right up there at the top with Norton, Cayuga, Ugni Blanc and (drum roll, please) Scuppernong.

It's unfair, because the muscat family of grapes makes some of the world's prettiest, most delectable sweet wines.

Muscat's popularity isn't helped by its association with muscatel -- the legendary beverage of skid row. Nor is it enhanced by its association with the words musky, which suggests deer sweat, and muskrat, a dish one might serve with Scuppernong.

The best of the muscat family is the Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains (white muscat of small berries), also known as Moscato d'Asti, muscat canelli, frontignac and many other names.

Most of the interesting dessert muscats in the market are produced from this variety, and consumers have never had a better choice than today.

There is one real peril in buying muscat, however. Except when made as a port-like fortified wine, muscat is very short-lived. Even well-made muscats tend to decline after two years in the bottle. Vintage 1998 is fine, but 1997s are iffy and sometimes just over the hill. Avoid anything older.

(The tendency of perishable wines to linger on store shelves long after they should have been sold is a common pitfall for consumers. Unfortunately, most retailers fail to purge their stock of decrepit wines. Wineries and wholesalers need to take a more active role in assuring quality control.)

So if you go on a muscat hunt, be careful. Here are some of the choices you'll find:

Yalumba Museum Muscat, Victoria Dessert Wine ($17.49, 375 milliliters). This intensely sweet, luscious Australian nonvintage fortified wine delivers a powerful mix of honey, nut, caramel, orange, clove and cinnamon flavors. This style of muscat can age many decades, but there's no need to wait.

1997 Ochoa Vino Dolce de Moscatel, Navarra ($15, 500 milliliters). This 3-year-old Spanish muscat is the classic exception that proves the rule. It's a rich, unctuous, complex and delightful dessert wine with flavors of pear, peach, nuts, caramel, mulling spice and even cherry. This is one of the world's great undiscovered dessert wines.

1998 Sarocco Moscato d'Asti ($16). This lightly effervescent, low-alcohol, mild sweet wine from Paolo Sarocco is a dancing delight on the palate. It offers exceptionally lively flavors of honey, marzipan, pear, peach, apricot and nuts. This is a superb example of why winemakers all over the world are trying to imitate the Asti moscatos from Italy's Piedmont region. Drink it before Labor Day.

1998 Piazzo Comm. Armando Moscato d'Asti ($12). If you can't find the Sarocco or want to save $4, this wine is a slightly less intense but otherwise wonderful version.

1997 Domaine Simon Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois Vin Doux Naturel ($17). This big, honeyed wine with 15 percent alcohol shows the deep golden color of mature sauterne, but flavors and bouquet are more exotic. There's a lot of orange here -- fruit, peel and blossom -- as well as a lot of Asian spice. This muscat has held up impressively where other 1997s have faltered, but drink it up soon.

1998 Bonny Doon Vineyard Muscat Vin de Glaciere ($17, 375 milliliters). With flavors concentrated by freezing the grapes, this wine displays an intense sweetness and acidity similar to the "ice wines" of Germany. Among the flavors: honey, apricot, melon, cherry, orange, lemon.

1997 and 1998 Robert Pecota Moscato d'Andrea, Napa Valley ($13, 375 milliliters). Here's a great example of the perishability problem. The 1998 is fresh, lively, moderately sweet and thoroughly delightful. The 1997, lingering on another retailer's shelf, is an overripe, cloying fruit salad of a wine that can only damage Pecota's reputation.

1998 Powers Muscat Canelli, Columbia Valley ($10). This lightly sweet, pleasant wine with hints of grapefruit and kiwi is more of an aperitif than a dessert wine. It could also be served as a table wine with spicy Asian cuisines.

1997 Chapoutier Muscat de Rivesaltes ($11, 500 milliliters). This one-time beauty is just beginning to show its age. It's not cracking up, but it's lost some freshness.

1998 Domaine de Coyeux Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($12, 375 milliliters). This moderately pleasant, somewhat short wine is a disappointment given the fame of its appellation.

1998 Moscato Allegro, Martin Brothers Winery ($14). The one-dimensional, orangy flavors suggest it's a lesser member of the muscat family.

1998 Castoro Cellars Muscat Canelli, Paso Robles ($9). Lightly sweet, rather insipid.

1997 and 1998 La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi Moscato Bianco ($13, 500 milliliters). The 1998 seems to be a crude, flabby attempt at aping the Asti style; the 1997 is fading from mediocrity to worse. Is Mondavi serious about this varietal?

1997 Fess Parker Muscat Canelli, Central Coast ($8, 375 milliliters). The bloom is off this rose. It might have been decent a year ago.

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