Moscatos make for a refreshing summer wine

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      A sure sign of summer: all of a sudden we’re all awash in moscato. On the sweet side, it’s perfect for spritzing, light in alcohol, and cheap (depending on your personal definition of the word), and its low acidity always makes it easy to drink.

      No fewer than four new ones have hit local shelves since spring officially (if not necessarily hydrometeorologically) arrived. There are a few others lurking about the shelves in various regional sections, mostly California.

      Moscato is one of the most versatile wines, based on muscat, one of the most versatile grape families; it’s used for winemaking as well as raisins and table grapes. There are hundreds of Muscat varieties, ranging in colour from white to practically black, like Quady Winery’s Elysium Black Muscat, a long-time favourite in British Columbia, ever since it was introduced to the market in the early years of the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. Italy, France, Greece, Spain, California, and Australia all grow abundant muscat, and it’s been that way for centuries, making muscat one of the oldest cultivated grapes in history.

      While there are regional and varietal differences, there’s one commonality they all share: slightly musky, fresh grape tastes. You may have tasted muscat years ago, probably inadvertently: it’s the principal component of Italy’s famous Asti Spumante, the original “bubble for boomers”, pre-boomery, of course. The French love their Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (and Muscat de Rivesaltes in the south), while the Californians have their Muscat Canelli and Muscat de Frontignan. Muscat of Alexandria is thought to have been cultivated since ancient-Egyptian times, and some Muscat Ottonel appears in B.C. vineyards periodically.

      There are many sound-alikes. Don’t confuse it with the French Muscadet, which is a light, dry wine well-known along stretches of the Loire; muscadine, a native grape variety that produces the southern United States’ still-favourite Scuppernong; or muscadelle, a high-yield Bordeaux variety often used in adding some sweetness to Sauvignon Blanc or for other blending purposes.

      Here at Uncorked Central we jumped the gun a little bit on Moscatos at the end of a Chardonnay column back in May. It bears requoting before we get on to the other three:

      “A rich, fruity, nicely sweet dessert wine, with less than six percent alcohol? True; it’s here from Australia for a reasonable price ($14.99). The label says 5.5 percent, you read it right; that’s less alcohol than some beers. Pick it up, bung it in the fridge for an hour, and sip it as a welcoming wine or with dessert. There’s no vintage indicated on the label, so whenever you encounter it in the Aussie section of your nearby government store, that’s it then.

      “It’s light and lovely, with a little something like coconut in the flavour mix and showing plenty of Muscat fruit. It has just a little sweetness, nothing cloying or overpowering: bright, light, and delicious. You’ll have fun experimenting with food pairings, too. It likes fresh fruit desserts with a little cream or ice cream, quiches, omelettes, and fresh vegetable stir-frys.”

      There’s more:

      Sutter Home Moscato 2009 ($9.99, 10 percent alcohol)
      From those wonderful folks who gave us white Zinfandel, this one did nothing for members of the tasting panel, who found it short-fruited and somewhat watery. There’s better to be found in many of California’s wine regions. The Barefoot (below) knocked it out of the ballpark, and at a lower price.

      Tranchero Osvaldo Moscato d’Asti 2010 ($19.99, 5.5 percent alcohol)
      The costliest of this quartet, this Italian version was also the tasters’ favourite: gently spritzy, full of ripe grape flavours, rich and luscious, with an off-sweet finish exacerbated by the fizz. Excellent, food-friendly, and versatile. But it is $20!

      Barefoot Moscato n/v ($8.99, 9 percent alcohol)
      Obviously targeted to the pop/beach market, as is the entire portfolio (it says “deliciously sweet” right on the front label), this was a pleasant surprise: sweet, clean, and appealing; very spritzable and fresh. Pour a chilled tumblerful, plop a few ice cubes in, add a ripe strawberry, a slice of lemon, or even a dash of vodka if that’s your sort of thing, and retire to the pool deck or the lawn chairs. For its combination of price and bright flavours, this was the tasters’ choice, this time out.

      The summer 2011 Moscato ranking, then:
      1. Barefoot
      2. McWilliams Hanwood Estate
      3. Tranchero Osvaldo
      4. Sutter Home