Last weekend, I was out with some friends at a local casino. One of the ladies chose a bottle of wine from the wine list to toast with for our little celebration. She selected a Moscato and we weren’t surprised when a 1.5 liter bottle of Sutter Home arrived at the table! Many of the ladies were eager to express their love of this wine. It is a very popular product and widely available. When asked for my thoughts, I explained there are some great examples of Moscato and I would love to show them what Moscato can be. Moscato grapes go by many monikers but the most commonly used worldwide is the French name, Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains. The earliest mentions of the grape in historical contexts date back to the 14th century. While the origins of the grape are unknown, it has been narrowed down to either Italy or Greece. Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains is considered a higher quality than Muscat of Alexandria, the grape grown in San Joaquin Valley, CA, where a vast majority of the grapes used to produce American made Moscato are planted. A few of the reasons Muscat of Alexandria is preferred in this region include that the vines are drought and heat tolerant and produce large bunches of big grapes that have a high sugar content when ripe. The wines made from Muscat of Alexandria tend to be much sweeter and less subtle than Moscatos made with higher quality varieties. Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains can be used to produce a vast array of wine styles including dry, sweet, sweet and fortified, and lightly sparkling. The berries are much smaller, which concentrates the flavors and aromas. This also leads to a lower yield by tonnage resulting in less wine produced by the same number of vines when compared to Muscat of Alexandria. Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains is known for its signature grapey aroma, similar to white grape juice, as well as floral notes like honeysuckle and spicy notes similar to ginger root. In order for wineries such as Sutter Home to achieve what is referred to as a house style, and avoid vintage variation (quality variation due to environmental factors such as weather, fires, frost, length of growing season, etc), some additions may be made to the wine. These can include chaptalization (addition of sugar), acidification (addition of tartaric or malic acid), and artificial flavors. If the grapes used didn’t reach the desired level of sugar, sugar can be added, usually in the form of rectified concentrated grape must (RCGM), which is a flavorless and colorless sweetener made from grapes. Acidification is practiced if there is more sugar than desired in the grape must. The addition of acid will offset the perception of sugar on the palate. Artificial flavors can be added to achieve the proper flavor profile if the flavors of the grapes are muted. In many regions around the world, there are strict laws regarding each of these. For example, if too much RCGM is added prior to fermentation, it can increase the amount of alcohol in the final product significantly or even stop fermentation resulting in a very sweet wine with lower levels of alcohol (unless it gets fortified at a later point). The best way I can equate a wine such as Sutter Home Moscato is to say it is the McDonald’s of wine. It is chemically engineered to have broad appeal but lacking in substance. It doesn’t start with the best ingredients, grapes are grown without concern to their environmental impact, and steps are taken in vinification to ensure a consistent product with each bottling year after year. With all of that said, there are great versions of Moscato available.
After drinking Sutter Home, I decided to crack a screw top on another bottle of Moscato, this time it was a 2021 Vietti Moscato d’Asti, DOCG from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. When the cap loosened, I felt pressure building underneath. When I poured my glass, there was significant mousse in the pale straw colored wine. The mousse quickly dissipated and became a gentle bubble collecting around the rim of the goblet. The bubbling in this wine was created by what is known as the tank method of making sparkling wines. This method uses pressurized stainless steel tanks to force the carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation process back into the wine. The wine was then bottled from the tank to preserve the sparkling character. It smelled of sweet white grape juice, honeysuckle, dried rose petals, candied ginger, and dried apricots. On the palate, this off sweet wine was well balanced by the level of acid. It had a subtle mousse, fuller body, and low level of alcohol. The notes of candied ginger, ripe yellow pears, honeysuckle, jasmine, and candied apricots lingered on the palate long after the wine was gone. This wine should be served slightly chilled. It can be served as a pre meal aperitif or paired with a meal. Types of cuisine that come to mind include Indian, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese to name a few. It would also brighten blue cheese. When I first tried this wine at a tasting, I was pleasantly surprised at how refreshing and fun, yet complex it was.