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A short history of the Muscat wine grape

The Muscat grape is the world's oldest known grape variety.

It probably originated in Greece but maybe the independent sultanate of Muscat in the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula had something to do with it. No doubt a Roman soldier or Phoenician trader brought it through Italy into Roman France. Early records show it shipped from the port of Frontignan in SW France during Charlemagne's reign.

In the following centuries the Romans took the variety further through France and Germany. The Greeks took it to the Crimea in the Soviet Union and the Egyptians sent cuttings south to what is now South Africa. Egyptian traders gave them Muscat of Alexandria and European immigrants brought cuttings of Muscat a Petits Grains with them.

And here's the interesting part. Muscat was officially introduced into Australia in the Busby Collection of 1832 and endorsed by Macarthur in 1844 as a suitable variety for Australian conditions. However, many early vine cuttings found their way into Australia via South Africa. Cuttings and seeds coming from South Africa account for many Australian early agricultural imports. The Americas received Muscat wines with its early Spanish and Italian immigrants.

Over 200 different varieties and derivatives to the Muscat family exist today. The most commonly known varieties of muscat grapes are:
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (also called Muscat Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Frontignan, Moscato Bianco, Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat d'Alsace, Muskateller, Muscatel de Grano Menudo, and Moscatel Rosé). This grape is used for the wines: asti spumante, clairette de die, and muscat de beaumes-de-venise
Moscato Giallo (or Goldmuskateller) and Moscato Rosa (or Rosenmuskateller) are thought to be closely related coloured versions of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
Muscat of Alexandria (also called Moscatel, Moscatel Romano, Moscatel de Málaga, Gordo Blanco, Hanepoot, Lexia, Moscatel Gordo, and Zibibbo) This grape is used for sherry (and is one of only three permitted grape varieties to be used in a true Sherry), moscatel or muscatel wines, Muscatel de Valencia, Muscatel Passito and other Muscatel liqueurs and also as a raisin and table grape.
Muscat Ottonel (also called Moskately) Used for dessert wines in Austria
Muscat Hamburg (also called Black Muscat, Moscato di Amburgo) Used for some Eastern European wine but mainly for table grapes in Italy and Australia
Orange Muscat Used for some wines in California

Muscat is the only grape to produce wine with the same aroma as the grape itself. Sweet fortified Muscats have a classic rich, nose of dried fruits, raisins and oranges. This strong perfume prompted the Roman author Pliny, in his "Natural History," to declare it "the grape of the bees." The French noted the grape's musky character and called it "Musqué,"

The vine itself is very vigorous but low yielding with medium size very dark green leaves. Bunches are medium sized, cylindrical in shape and elongated, very much like a chardonnay bunch. Muscat grapes range from white to almost black in colour. The Muscat we grow in Australia produces berries of medium size starting out green and transparent and then ripening to a rich golden yellow colour with a tinge of red. The fruit ripens early and is often left out on the vine till it starts to shrivel so as to produce grapes very high in natural sugars.

Muscat grapes are used in a variety of wine styles from the sugary Italian Asti Spumante to the sweet and strong Australian fortifieds and South African Constantia. Pisco is a unique brandy popular in Chile and Peru. It's made from white Muscat varieties which grow in two places: the region of Pisco, Peru and the Valle del río Elqui in central Chile. Metaxa is a brandy liqueur from Greece which also uses Muscat grapes while France's Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is another fortified wine with delicious orange aromas. At the other extreme is another French sparkling white called Clairette de Die with a fruity musky palate.

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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