Heady Muscat wines, with their exotically charged perfume of jasmine and honeysuckle, are perfect for September.
The salad days of summer are yielding to the pudding days of autumn and a gentle yearning for some sweet extravagance. And, compared with eye-wateringly expensive Sauternes and Tokaji dessert wines, these Muscats are among the wine world’s greatest bargains.
It’s likely that Muscat is the original wine-grape, having been cultivated around the Mediterranean since the dawn of civilisation. And, as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s the only grape variety to make wines that actually taste of grapes.
There are numerous branches of the Muscat family – Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains makes the finest wines, followed by Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Ottonel, while lesser versions are eaten as raisins.
Muscats make myriad wine styles from dry Muscat d’Alsace and frothy Moscato d’Asti to the exuberantly sweet Muscats of southern France and Australia.
Known collectively as vin doux naturel (natural sweet wine), southern French Muscats include Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from the Rhône, considered the most delicate, and Muscat de Frontignan and Muscat de St Jean de Minervois from the Languedoc.
These are all made from the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains variety, whereas Muscat de Rivesaltes from Roussillon is made mainly from Muscat of Alexandria. These are all fortified by adding spirit to the fermenting wines before all the sugar has been converted into alcohol.
Despite their luscious sweetness, these bright, golden wines are neither sickly nor cloying – providing they are served chilled, which accentuates their fresh, clean, citrusy flavours.
Similar in style, though unfortified, is a unique blend of the Orange Muscat and Flora grape varieties from Brown Brothers in Australia. This rich, zesty little number is a late-harvest dessert wine, meaning the grapes have been left on the vine until they’re overloaded with ripeness.
The great Liqueur Muscats from Rutherglen, are darker, fortified beasts with concentrated raisiny flavours that become quite viscous with age, and are delicious with vanilla ice cream, Christmas pudding and mince pies.
How to serve Muscat wine
The French chill their sweet Muscats to serve as apéritifs and also pair them with rich pâtés like foie gras and salty blue cheeses such as Roquefort. But these wines really come into their own with fruit-based puddings such as lemon tart, pavlova and fruit-topped cheesecakes. I'd recommend them also with baked apple and raisins, zesty apple crumble or cinnamon-laced strudel.
It might not be the “angels dancing on your tongue” that you supposedly get with top-flight Sauternes, but in these straitened times is it so wrong to invite a few cherubs round for a kick-about?