Calling all Muscateers
With only around 5 per cent of Muscat exported from France, how can producers further exploit growth in the UK? Richard James believes a sense of adventure is needed to sell the noble grape
The Rencontres Mediterranéennes du Muscat might sound like a dating agency for southern European winegrowers, but Perpignan's Muscat showcase has prompted further investigation into the grape's position and potential in the UK.
With more than 9,000ha of Muscat planted in France, most of it in the south, it isn't a grape to be sneered at. This isn't far behind those other versatile, "noble" varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Semillon; and the much trendier Viognier has a mere 2,500ha. First and foremost, Muscat is seen as a sweet wine variety.
France is still by far the main market for these wines, and exports just 3-5 per cent of its overall output. So what progress has been made, and how might they appeal to British wine lovers?
Cave de Baixas' Dom Brial was a victim of Morrisons' takeover of Safeway. Sales manager Claude Sarda says the brand had sold 30,000 half-bottles, showing that there is a following for this type of wine. "Now it's more like in France, you have to do tastings in wine shops or supermarkets. The styles are fresh and fruity, when people try it they like it."
Mont Tauch is launching Muscat de Rivesaltes at France under One Roof (£4.99 for 50cl). Export manager Katie Jones believes "there is a market as long as it's on taste and clearly described for the consumer". Vitally, the words "sweet Muscat from the south of France" will feature on the back label.
For Charles Lea, joint owner of London's Lea & Sandeman shops, the market for sweet French Muscats is "small, price-conscious and possibly suffering from a rather naff image, after the explosion of Muscat Beaumes de Venise in the 70s. There are more sophisticated sweeties - Coteaux du Layon, for example, with botrytis to give complexity and better acidity, barely more expensive."
Stephen Crosland, Tanners' purchasing director, says: "We're looking to more in the Roussillon, but feel Muscat is maybe a bit dated." He notes that 50cl and smaller bottles sell better.
Simon Taylor, of Stone Vine & Sun, says: "I would say Beaumes de Venise was a very successful brand in French terms." He describes the Roussillon as "a positive area - we list four vins doux naturels from here. We always finish a Languedoc-Roussillon or Rhône tasting with a VDN, and people are often delighted by them."
Rivesaltes' producers sell a big chunk of their latest vintage in France labelled as Muscat de Noël, which might work in the UK - although some experts think Muscat is more of a summer drink.
Too sexy for the bottle?
Does the dry Muscat style suit British taste and is it beginning to register interest as a varietal wine? Given the concentration of plantings in southern France, and particularly Roussillon, this could be an area of untapped potential if they get their marketing right.
"The name is not a seller on the label," says Lea, who believes customers are confused by the taste of dry Muscat: "It smells like it's going to be sweet and then is slightly bitter-dry, while having little in the way of refreshing acid." Taylor adds: "I keep wanting to buy cheap dry Muscat from the Roussillon - some of the co-op wines aren't bad - then realise we have enough to hand-sell."
Majestic is the only multiple specialist to list a Muscat sec, from Gérard Bertrand at £4.99. Chris Hardy describes the style as "more in line with English taste".
Waitrose's Justin Howard-Sneyd MW is also optimistic: "I have a personal conviction that dry Muscat styles have huge potential, if only the kind of customers who respond to them (maybe the semi-sweet drinker whose palate has become drier) could learn what to look
Muscat's shortcomings mostly stem from vineyard and winery techniques geared to VDN styles. These are being overcome by picking earlier without forsaking phenolic ripeness, and avoiding protracted skin contact, which accounts for that light bitterness. Blending is another way and can add weight to Muscat's aromatics, such as the Domaine Cazes or Fruité Catalan Muscat/Viognier wines. "It should be possible to make fresh, unoaked blends from Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Muscat or Maccabeo for £5.50-£7," says Taylor.
Sparkling rosé - Dom Brial's bikini-clad Rozy is a surprisingly subtle Syrah/Muscat - and even alcohol-free Muscats provoke mixed reactions among retailers, yet show other areas where the variety can develop if price, taste and packaging match.
Sweet Muscat may eventually break the mould, with a clearer message and in-store tastings, as an alternative aperitif, dessert or cheese wine. Dry varietals or blends could prove to be the biggest opportunity of all. Whatever their form, southern French Muscat producers must keep innovating and really get behind their wines, if they want to create a potentially exciting opening in the UK.
Muscat d'Alexandrie - AKA Muscat à gros grains, Moscatel de Malaga, Hanepoot (SA), Zibibbo (Italy & north Africa)
Muscat à Petits Grains - AKA Muscat d'Alsace, Moscatel de Douro, Moscato d'Asti, yellow Muscat (Germany & Hungary)
Muscat Vin Doux Naturel - made by "mutage": adding neutral grape spirit (96 per cent abv) to the fermenting must, giving a "naturally" sweet wine with 100-125g/litre residual sugar and around 15 per cent alcohol
Muscat moelleux - medium-sweet with up to 45 g/l residual sugar, made from late-picked grapes or (cheaper) by sweetening after fermentation
Muscat effervescent - medium-dry/sweet sparkling wine (15-45 g/l residual sugar) made by traditional method or in tank
Muscat sec - regular dry white with less than 5 g/l residual sugar.