Crisp, dry, delicately aromatic and distinctly grapey, Muscat is the classic Alsatian spring aperitif. In restaurants all around our region at this time of year, un verre de Muscat is regularly proffered as an appetite sharpener – très typique and lots more fun than the conventional choices like Champagne or Crémant d’Alsace.
Amongst all the (many and varied) wines of Alsace, Muscat is probably the least known – and the most surprising – of them all. 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 over 2 percent of all plantings. Compare this with Riesling (3376 hectares, 8300 acres or 22 percent) 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 reckon that if grapes were people, Riesling might be a nicely brought-up young chap, 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 moody, susceptible to the slightest rebuff and always ready to flounce out in a huff, in a word: complicated.
Marie Zusslin (pictured below) of organic/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 to me recently. The house Muscat, named Cuvée Marie in her honour, is one of my favourites.
And the surprise element? Muscat made in Alsace is always 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.
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. Ottonel is softer, with all the characteristic 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, formerly Alsace contributing editor for the Bettane & Desseauve wine guide and Regional Chair Alsace for Decanter World Wine Awards since 2012. Still today you’ll find winemakers who reckon that a blend is best, and 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”. On the other hand, the aforementioned Cuvée Marie from Zusslin in Orschwihr, Cathy Faller’s Muscat from Domaine Weinbach from Kaysersberg and another favourite of mine, Frédéric Mochel’s from Traenheim in the Bas-Rhin, are all made from 100 percent Ottonel.
Whichever of the two grapes winemakers use and in whatever proportion, all are agreed that choice of terroir, careful winemaking and plenty of TLC throughout the cycle are key. However, since you won’t find any mention of the relative proportions of the two varieties on the label, this falls into the category of geeky wine info, rather than something you need to fret about. Concentrate, rather, on tracking down what you can. If you live close enough to Alsace, or are travelling in the region, visit any of the above to stock up on this gorgeous spring wine. Alternatively, try www.winesearcher.com for suppliers.
A note on food: If Muscat’s credentials as the perfect seasonal apero are well established, the wine also stars in combination with light spring cuisine. The favoured local match is with asparagus, but try Muscat d’Alsace with a little spring méli-mélo of baby carrots, turnips, courgettes, beans (broad, French, coco), mangetout/sugar snaps and/or fennel, and whisk up a lightly creamed emulsion based on the jus from the (barely-) cooked vegetables.
Cathy Faller at Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg advises partnering her Muscat with a verdant snail soup, richly flavoured 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 favourite 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. And with summer not far off, my thoughts are already turning to an Alsace Muscat partnered with a soft-centred Pavlova meringue topped with passion fruit and strawberries and a lick of honey.