The Muscat grape variety has always appealed to me, because of two particular attributes, possibly linked. Firstly, the simple one that it is a wine educator’s dream to discuss – we can say to students: “Yes, this is the only major grape variety from which wines generally do smell of grapes”. And secondly, Muscat (in its various genetic forms – and there are many) seems to be extremely flexible in the types of wines it can be used to make … and that leads me to a tale from many years ago when I was struggling with the blind tasting exams in the Master of Wine qualification.
In case you don’t know, I am a proud failure. Or rather, I passed the Master of Wine theory exams twenty years ago, but failed to crack the tasting exams and eventually decided it was time to give up. I’m not resentful, quite the opposite as I made some fantastic contacts and friends, and I learned a huge amount about all facets of wine, which I might never otherwise have done. But, back to the Muscat story. Tasting Paper III traditionally included all those wine styles that were not simply red or white, though this was never guaranteed. Usually the 12 wines included sparkling, sweet and fortified wines, though sometimes they would thrown in something else too (I remember three styles of Valpolicella one year – normal, ripasso and Amarone). Theory was always my strong point, having suffered from allergies all my life I am not a natural taster, so on the occasions I did well in a blind tasting it was usually part logical deduction, part tasting ability and experience.
So, here is my favourite ever Master of Wine tasting question: Five wines from a single grape variety and as well as naming the variety, we had to estimate the alcohol level and comment on how the wines were made. Just one look at the different colours in the glass gave the likely answer as Muscat, and then it was relatively simple to deduce which wines they were in order to explain the method of production. If I can remember rightly back so long ago, there was a dry Muscat, a Moscato d’Asti, a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, an Australian Liqueur Muscat and a Moscatel de Setύbal varying from 5.5% to 20% alcohol. It was the only time I actually enjoyed myself during an MW tasting exam – and I did pass that paper even if over the course of the three days tasting papers, my average was never enough to pass the whole thing.
Over the years I’ve visited Asti, Beaumes de Venise and Rutherglen, and this year I had the chance to visit Setύbal famous for its rather obscure fortified Muscats, usually sold quite mature. Part of the European Wine Bloggers Conference programme last month in Lisbon was a day out to the Setύbal Peninsula. Our visit to the Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal winery (formerly JP Vinhos) in the small town of Azeitão proved to be highly educational as well as a feast for the eyes, exploring their unusual garden and inside, the amazing displays of art, from traditional Portuguese tile panels to modern sculpture.
We were lucky on a Sunday and a Portuguese holiday (1st November) to have the chief winemaker Vasco Garcia as our guide and he explained about the terroir, the maturation and the wines (We did of course discuss and taste many of their range, but I’m just focussing on the Moscatels here). The Muscat de Alexandria grows mainly on mountain hillsides where limestone dominates and there is a high day/night temperature variation going from around 35°C in the day down to 10°C at night close to harvest time, which gives the grapes particularly good natural acidity levels. Muscat de Alexandria needs plenty of heat and sun, and has quite a long growing cycle – the tradition here is to pick relatively early with around 12 – 13% potential alcohol, with harvest usually in early October. Fermentation is with the skins and stopped very early on by addition of 77% strong brandy as with port production, but the big point of difference here is a long maceration (especially for white grapes). The skins of the Muscat remain macerating in what is now a liquid with 18% alcohol for up to six months to provide a characteristic bitter character.
Next comes the oak maturation. Traditionally here Moscatel barrels were stored in sand, now to replicate this and also some of the maturation process used for Madeira (where the barrels undergo a slow heating and cooling process over the year in estufagem), Bacalhôa stores its barrels in Nissan huts. The air in the huts, known as cantera, can reach as high as 50°C in summer and as low as -2°C in winter – the actual temperature of the wine inside the barrels goes up to about 28°C in summer and down to 10°C in winter. About 5% of the wine is lost through evaporation each year, so the wines gain in concentration losing some water and alcohol, but acidity (or freshness) is retained. Vasco maintained that the temperature differences give flowery aromas to the Moscatel or even citrus and bergamot flavours.
We tasted a Moscatel de Setύbal 1999 which was just gorgeous, golden-green in colour, with some floral and orange, along with a honey and even herbal aroma. On the palate it was a little like old English orange marmalade – bitter/sweet but fresh, unctuous and very long. The 18.5% alcohol didn’t intrude at all. Made in the same method, we also tasted a rare Moscatel de Setύbal Roxo 1999 from a reddish variant of the Muscat à Petit Grains. It was deeper in colour and seemed altogether more intense, though there were fine flavours and elegance too.
After our visit to Bacalhôa we went onto José Maria de Fonseca in the same town where we had more of a tourist visit. Their so-called ‘cathedral’ housing the barrels for their Moscatel wines was impressive with religious music playing, and both stained glass and some ancient cobwebs on view. Here they store wines back to 1880 and they blend older wines with younger ones almost reminiscent of the Sherry solera system. We tasted a slightly less refined, but still marmalade-like Moscatel de Setύbal Roxo 1998 but then, thanks to the generosity of Carrie Jorgensen of Cortes de Cima in Alentejo who, as a blogger herself, had joined our group, I revelled in a small sip of their Moscatel de Setύbal Trilogy. Trilogy is a blend of the three best vintages of the 20th century, which after what must have been extensive but exhaustingly sweet tastings, turned out to be 1900, 1934 and 1964. JM de Fonseca’s shop area boasts an enomatic tasting machine with samples available from €1 up to €10 for the Trilogy. The wine was honeyed, unctuous and a great experience.
It’s wonderful that this unusual winemaking process is preserved and these Moscatel wines are still highly prized in Portugal, though harder to find outside. Thanks to the wineries and also to DOC-DMC, a specialist Portuguese wine tour company, who organised and sponsored our day including an excellent special buffet lunch nearby at Alcanena.