Producing muscat at Chambers Rosewood in Rutherglen

No matter how old you are, dear reader, I’m guessing that the first wines you drank were probably made from muscat grapes.If you hit drinking age in the 1950s and ’60s, many of the sweet sparkling wines that were all the rage then – Barossa Pearl, Porphyry Pearl etc. – relied in part on the distinctive floral, musky perfume of muscat to give them their wide appeal.

If you cut your wine teeth in the 1970s and ’80s on spatlese lexia or fruity moselle – either in bottle, flagon or cask – the grapey flavour of muscat was one of the main attractions of those wines. My gateway wine, circa 1985, was a Brown Brothers Spatlese Lexia: I can still remember its golden yellow colour, its flavour of ripe sunshine.

Scion’s dry version of muscat
Scion’s dry version of muscat

If gently fizzy, moderately-alcoholic, sweet sherbety moscato was your introduction to the world of wine in the late 1990s and 2000s, muscat was once again the variety responsible for luring you in.

Muscat might also be the last wine flavour you taste, too: once you’ve tried the extraordinarily rich, deep lusciousness of the best Rutherglen fortified muscats – treacly-thick, super-sweet tinctures that spend decades maturing in barrel – you’ll probably choose one as your death-bed tipple.

Brown Brothers’ vineyard
Brown Brothers’ vineyard

The muscat family is one of the oldest and most widely-grown groups of grape varieties in the world. Muscat vines have been around for so long – hundreds, perhaps thousands of years – that they come in many forms and many names, from pale-coloured white grapes used to make fresh, pretty, light wines around the Mediterranean, to darker-coloured, almost purple grapes that produce those amazing fortifieds here in Australia. The common factor to all is their distinctive, pungent, musky aroma.

The most highly-regarded is the muscat blanc à petits grains grape. Thought to have originated on the Greek islands – where it still produces luscious golden sweet wines – this small-berried, intensely-flavoured variety is responsible for great dessert wines made from dried – passito – grapes in southern Italy and light, sweet, fizzy moscato wines in northern Italy; rich sweet wines (often slightly fortified and bottled young) across southern France, Spain and Portugal; sweet and dry wines in Eastern Europe; and powerful, old, fortified wines in South Africa and – most notably – in Australia.

Here, especially in Rutherglen in Victoria’s northeast, a variation of this grape with darker, reddish skin – called brown muscat locally – is responsible for the region’s top, powerfully intense wines.

Scion winemaker Rowly Milhinch.
Scion winemaker Rowly Milhinch

The second most important variety in the family is called muscat of Alexandria. With bigger bunches and bigger berries, this variety produces lighter, more floral, less intensely flavoured wines. In Sicily and the islands of southern Italy, where it’s known as zibibbo, it produces tangy, mostly dried-grape wines. It is also grown – to a lesser extent than muscat blanc à petits grains – in other parts of Europe.

But in Australia, where it’s called muscat gordo blanco or lexia (a uniquely local contraction of Alexandria) it has played a very important role over the decades. Once used to make everything from flagons of sweet sherry to that bottle of Brown Brothers’ late-harvested sunshine that seduced me towards the end of last century, lexia is now the mainstay variety found in one of the most successful wine styles of the early years of this century, Australian moscato.

Four Muscats to Try

2018 Brown Brothers Moscato Gold, Victoria, A$20
This is Brown Brothers’ top expression of the moscato style: rich, mandarin-like, punchy flavours of the orange muscat variety add weight to the fresh florals of lexia grapes. Gorgeously gluggable and only 6% alcohol.
brownbrothers.com.au

2018 Scion Blonde, Rutherglen, A$26
An unusual style of light dry muscat. The wine is fully fermented, so there’s no residual sugar, and while it smells beautifully sweet – lots of the grape’s distinctive musky citrus fruit perfume – it tastes dry and refreshing.
scionvineyard.com

2015 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance, South Africa, A$170/500ml
Made from very-late-harvested muscat grapes allowed to shrivel on the vine, this golden, marmalade-y nectar is unequivocally one of the world’s greatest sweet wines (and, relatively speaking, pretty good value at this price).
Imported by airoldifinewines.com.au

Chambers Rosewood Rare Muscat, Rutherglen, A$300/375ml
A wine that renders scores out of a hundred utterly meaningless. It’s simply impossible to imagine how any fortified wine could be more intense, more luscious, more treacly and more profoundly delicious than this.
chambersrosewood.com.au