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Marvelous Muscat from Alsace
By Paul Lukacs
Mar 18, 2014
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Imagine a wine that smells sweet but tastes dry.  That paradoxical combination would make it seem simultaneously sumptuous and stimulating, rich but also refreshing.  Now imagine its succulent aromas echoing rose petals, orange blossoms and honey, and then its flavors turning taut, marked by a citrus tang and an invigorating crispness.  Such a wine, delicious anytime, would almost demand to be enjoyed in spring.  Its personality would echo the season’s--warm and cool, sweet and dry, all at once.

You can stop imagining.  This wine, one of the world’s least appreciated truly great white wines, actually exists.  Rare but not obscure, it is dry Muscat from Alsace in northeastern France.  If you don’t know it, now is a great time to get acquainted.

“You have to love it,” says Francis Burn, who produces some of the very best at Domaine Ernst Burn.  He is talking about both the wine and the effort required to make it.  “You can’t make good Muscat if you don’t love it.”

Muscat has long been cultivated widely along the Mediterranean rim.  In fact, it may well be the oldest grape variety in cultivation.  Some scientists think that it was grown by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and that it may even be a descendent of the original wine grape, first cultivated in Georgia or Armenia nearly 10,000 years ago.  Today, Muscat can be found throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as in those parts of North and South America, Africa and Australia that enjoy a Mediterranean climate. 

Alsace, however, is a northern wine-growing region, more akin to Burgundy or Germany’s Rhinegau.  In fact, its vineyards lie right across the Rhine from the Black Forest, just south of Luxembourg.  With the Vosges mountains to the west, this is more ski than sunbathing country.  What are Muscat grapes doing there?

“They’re certainly capricious,” admits Olivier Humbrecht, whose Zind-Humbrecht wines rank with the very finest.  Francis Burn echoes that sentiment, noting that the variety requires tender care in both the vineyard and the winery.  He notes, however, that two aspects of the local climate enable Muscat not just to survive but actually to thrive in Alsace.  The first is summer heat.  The broad Alsatian plain that extends from the mountains to the river is one of the warmest places in all of France come July and August.  The other is the lack of summer rainfall.  “Muscat does not like rain,” he explains.  “It is very fragile.”

So even though winters prove sometimes severe, and spring can be cold and damp, conditions during much of the growing season link Alsace with regions much farther south.  “We live,” Olivier Humbrecht says with a smile, “in a big garden.”

While some people speculate that the Romans brought Muscat to Alsace, the first recorded mention of it dates from the 1400s (before anyone had heard of Riesling and other now popular grapes).  Since then, it seems never to have been planted all that widely, but almost always to have been valued highly.

In fact, Alsace today is home to two related but separate Muscats.  The original, called “Petits Grains,” grows alongside one named “Ottonel,” a variety only brought to the region in the mid-nineteenth century.  Each has its advocates, and many wines are made with a blend of the two.  Both, however, are very sensitive.  Fragile, especially during spring flowering, they are by all accounts the trickiest grapes to grow in Alsace.

They yield, however, some of the very finest wines.  That evaluation was acknowledged tacitly by the authorities who in 1975 designated some of Alsace’s historically best vineyards as “grand crus.”  In the process, they specified that only wines made from four grapes--Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Riesling--could sport that title on their labels.  Muscat was by far the least planted amongst this prized quartet.

One might think that the esteem of “grand cru” status would have led to more planting, but just the opposite has happened over the past three decades.  Muscat today takes up a smaller percentage of vineyard land (only a bit more than 2%) than ever before, and fewer wine drinkers know and so appreciate the wines. 

The current situation is something of a proverbial vicious circle.  Consumer demand goes down when fewer wines show up on store shelves, but vintners make fewer wines because consumers don’t ask for them.  As one well-respected winemaker confessed to a few years ago, “I consider Muscat to be part of my heritage, but I will not plant more.”

Still, some Alsatian vintners remain committed to this most distinctive wine.  “Yes, people don’t know it.  Yes, they get confused by it.  But Muscat has a great future,” argues Olivier Humbrecht.  It is, he insists, “a difficult grape but a great wine.”      

Most wines made from Muscat grown elsewhere taste sumptuously sweet.  Some even are fortified with spirit so as to retain sugar.  The Alsatians are thus an anomaly.  Their seductive bouquet may lead you to suspect something syrupy, but they instead will surprise you with their compelling, complex dry charms.  Try a bottle when the last snow melts and the daffodils begin to bloom.  You’ll be amazed.