Among the wines of Alsace, Muscat is probably the least known — and the most surprising. Its relative obscurity is explained by the fact that there’s just so little of it.
Of the total vineyard area in Alsace, Muscat accounts for just 362 hectares (900 acres), or a little more than 2% of all plantings. Compare this with Riesling (3,376 hectares, 8,300 acres or 22% of planting) and you get the picture. There’s just not enough of this wonderful wine to go ’round.
Why such tiny quantities? Mainly because Muscat is famously difficult to grow. I sometimes think if grapes were people, Riesling might be a nicely brought-up young man, mature beyond his years, a touch preppy, a sure hit with mothers-in-law. Muscat, by contrast, would be the temperamental teenager — every parent’s nightmare. She’s susceptible to the slightest rebuff, always ready to flounce out in a huff. In a word: complicated.
Muscat grapes finicky, but payoff is worth it
Marie Zusslin of organic and biodynamic Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr, agrees that the grape is thoroughly “capricieux” (capricious). She underlines how difficult it is to work with at every stage, right through the growing cycle and into the cellar. “You can’t let Muscat out of your sight for a moment if you want to be sure to preserve its structure and its delicate aromas,” she commented in an email.
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And the surprise element? Muscat in Alsace is always made as a dry or off-dry wine. This sets it apart from Muscat from other parts of France and elsewhere in Europe, where it is most often made sweet, and sometimes additionally fortified with alcohol. Crisp, dry, distinctly grapey — it’s the only wine that actually tastes like a juicy mouthful of fresh grapes — and delicately aromatic, Muscat is the classic Alsatian aperitif. At the world-famous Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauesern, where pre-dinner drinks are served on long, lazy summer evenings in the garden fringed with weeping willows that bend low to the river, sommelier Serge Dubs delights in offering un verre de Muscat as an appetite sharpener — très typique and more fun than the conventional alternatives, such as a glass of Champagne or Crémant d’Alsace.
Two distinct varieties of Muscat are cultivated in Alsace: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (often known locally as Muscat d’Alsace) and Muscat Ottonel. Received wisdom, shared by Jancis Robinson in the magisterial Wine Grapes, is that Petits Grains, a small-berried variety (as indicated by the name), is the superior grape, finer and more delicate and with high acidity, which gives it good backbone. Ottonel is softer, with all the blockbusting Muscat aromas, but it’s generally considered less elegant.
Traditionally, Muscat produced in Alsace was a blend of the two: Petits Grains for acidity and structure and Ottonel for seductive, ripe-fruit aromas, explains Thierry Meyer, former wine commentator on Alsace for the French wine guide Bettane & Desseauve.
Still, today you will find winemakers who are of the opinion that a blend is best, probably one that majors on the supposedly finer Petits Grains at the expense of the purportedly clumsier Ottonel. Marc Hugel of the eponymous domaine in Riquewihr is firmly in the blending camp and considers Muscat made purely from Ottonel to be “an aberration.” Zind-Humbrecht, for its part, is leaning ever more heavily in the direction of Petits Grains for its celebrated Muscat (also a blend). On the other hand, Domaine Zusslin in Orschwihr, Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg and Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim make beautiful Muscat from 100% Ottonel. But whichever of the two grapes winemakers use and in whatever proportion, all agree that choice of terroir, careful winemaking and plenty of TLC throughout the cycle are key.
However, because you won’t find any mention of the relative proportions of the two varieties on the label, this is not something to fret about. Concentrate, rather, on tracking down what you can (try www.winesearcher.com for suppliers) and savor this fruity, fragrant summer drink to the full.
Summer is time for Muscat
If Muscat’s credentials as the perfect seasonal aperitif are well established, it also stars in combination with light summery cuisine. The preferred local match is with asparagus, but — in Alsace at least — the season is now closed and the markets are full of beautiful early vegetables (baby carrots or zucchini, fingerling potatoes, fava beans and sugar snaps). Try Muscat with a platter of these with linguine in a lightly creamy emulsion based on the jus from the barely- cooked vegetables, or with a salad of summer leaves topped with soft fresh goat’s cheese.
Catherine Faller at Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg advises partnering Muscat with her celebrated snail soup, richly flavored with parsley, chervil and garlic. “The wine picks up le petit côté végétal (the slightly vegetal hints) of snails in their herby broth,” she explains. A favorite match of mine is Muscat with a dish of lightly gingered prawns in a sauce of lemongrass-infused coconut milk, whose delicate flavors echo the floral-spicy nature of the wine. For a final summer showstopper, try an Alsace Muscat with a soft-centered Pavlova meringue topped with passion fruit and strawberries and a lick of honey.
Top photo: Three favorite Muscats, from Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zusslin and Hugel et Fils. Credit: Sue Style