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Muscat is one of the most versatile and food-friendly wine grapes in Australia, and it's worth getting to know the variety in its many guises as we head into the Christmas feasting season.
You're probably most familiar with muscat in the form of the famously luscious, deep-golden fortified wines from Rutherglen or, under its Italian pseudonym moscato, as a light, sherbety-sweet sparkling produced by wineries all over the country. Both styles are almost mandatory during Christmas. A growing number of Australian winemakers are also producing other expressions of the grape, from exquisitely perfumed but bone-dry whites to younger, lighter dessert wines.
The muscat family of grapes is very old, and had already spread across Europe by the time many Old World wine regions had been established. As a result, muscat has long been grown in European vineyards from southern Italy to Spain, where it's called moscatel.
While most Old World winemakers produce sweet wines from muscat, in some regions of France - Côtes de Gascogne in the south-west and Alsace in the north-east, for example - it's common to find dry white wines made from the grape, wines that smell enticingly sweet, but taste fresh and savoury on the tongue.
A couple of Australian winemakers have emulated this dry style over the years - notably St Leonards in Rutherglen - and a recent surge of interest has resulted in some lovely new local examples. From McLaren Vale, the Leask family's 2014 Hither & Yon Muscat Blanc ($20) is all floral aromatics that's clean and crisp in the mouth, while the 2013 Fleur ($19) from Rutherglen winery Scion is fuller-flavoured, more textural on the tongue, but finishes dry. Both would be delicious matched with a cold seafood salad on Christmas Day - Vietnamese-inspired prawns, perhaps.
South Australia's warm Riverland district grows much of this country's muscat crop and, while most of that fruit is destined for cheap 'n' cheerful sweet white, a handful of boutique makers in other regions are using it to produce drier, more characterful wines.
Langhorne Creek organic winery Temple Bruer has released small batches of stunning wild-fermented Riverland wines including a super-spicy and grapy 2014 #2 White Frontignac ($25); new, small Adelaide Hills-based label Unico Zelo has released a rich but dry 2014 Muscat d'Alessandria ($23) made from Riverland fruit; and winemaker Brad Hickey from Brash Higgins in McLaren Vale has pushed the stylistic boundaries with a dry, amphora-fermented, slightly cloudy Riverland muscat he calls 2013 ZBO ($37) - a complex wine I'd consider matching with classic roast pork or turkey with all the trimmings.
There's obviously something in the water in McLaren Vale, because the region is home to another winery pushing the boundaries with muscat. The 2014 Conte Estate "Il Bacio d'Oro" (kiss of gold) Moscato ($20) is the first example of this style I've come across that's been made without sulphur dioxide added as a preservative. The resulting sweet and fizzy wine appears a little rustic (it's slightly cloudy, unlike most moscatos), but what it lacks in conventional good looks it more than makes up for in flavour: unrestrained grapy muscat juiciness bursts all over your tongue. Drink it nice and cold as an anytime apéritif.
One of the most popular styles of muscat in southern France is called Beaumes de Venise, made by fortifying partially fermented grape juice with neutral spirit, then bottling the strong, sweet, golden wine while young and fresh. A few winemakers have tried producing this style here, notably Barossa winery Torbreck, whose 2013 "The Bothie" ($20) would make a fine partner for mince pies and a double espresso on Boxing Day.
Then there are this country's oldest and most profound fortified muscats, which are from Rutherglen. The best of these aren't cheap - Campbells' brilliant Merchant Prince Rare Muscat, for example, costs $110 for a half-bottle - but, among the finest and most memorable wines in the world, they're worth every cent: impossibly rich and complex, with a lingering warmth and taste of honeyed history that lasts for hours.
I can't think of a single wine lover who wouldn't be overjoyed to find a rare Rutherglen muscat in their stocking on Christmas morning.
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