Ask a wine retailer what’s hot these days, and you’ll probably hear “moscato.” It’s the fastest-growing wine variety in the United States, according to MarketWatch, with several American brands selling up to six times as much as they did three years ago.
Wait. Did I just say U.S. brands are on the rise? Not moscato d’Asti, the low-alcohol, fruity-floral, sweet and fizzy wine from Piemonte in northern Italy?
Well, yes, moscato d’Asti as well, apparently, but also its cheaper American imitators. The most popular domestic brand is Barefoot, produced by E&J Gallo, according to MarketWatch. Beringer, Sutter Home and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge are also in vogue. Those brands have the advantage of being widely available and less expensive than moscato d’Asti, although their quality can be uneven.
What’s to account for moscato’s popularity? Rap musicians used to favor Cristal champagne, but when the Louis Roederer Champagne house complained a few years ago about the image its top wine had acquired, musicians such as Kanye West, Lil’ Kim and Kendrick Lamar turned to a cheaper bubbly.
Given the poor economy of the past few years, moscato certainly has more of a populist appeal than the triple-digit Cristal, anyway. Cheap, sweet and fizzy, it is an easy wine for non-wine-drinkers to love.
The rising appeal of moscato has been felt locally. The import company M Touton Selection had difficulty this year keeping its Villa Jolanda Rosato Moscato, a slightly sweet pink fizz, in stock as consumer demand surged. The company gained more than 100 local retail clients in the District and Maryland over the past year who were interested solely in that wine, says Steven Schattman, a local M Touton Selection representative. Many of those retailers are now ordering other products, he says.
“Our hope is that this will follow a similar pattern as the white zinfandel craze of the ’70s and ’80s, and that it will bring new customers to wine,” Schattman says, fondly remembering his early tipples of Mateus and Lancer’s rosé.
So what exactly is moscato? It’s the Italian name of the muscat grape, which has many varieties and styles. Moscato d’Asti, the benchmark, is typically low in alcohol (about 5 percent), with good strong fizz to balance the residual sugar, so the wine is both sweet and refreshing. It tastes of rose petals, ripe peaches and sometimes jasmine, and it’s excellent with fruit desserts or even breakfast (blueberry pancakes!). Moscato d’Asti typically sells for $15 to $25 a bottle.
To see what was out there, I bought several non-Italian moscato versions, all priced from $5 to $9, which is significantly cheaper than the Italian benchmark. American moscati, including the popular brands I mentioned earlier, ranged from mediocre to simply awful. Most bore no resemblance to what is produced in Italy; they were still, with little fruit and tons of sulfur. The one exception was Beringer, which had some appealing apricot flavors in an off-dry still wine that resembled more a muscat from Alsace. In all honesty, it shouldn’t be called moscato, but it probably wouldn’t sell as a muscat.
I did have one very pleasant surprise, and it came from a mass-produced label I never thought I’d mention favorably in this column. From Australia, Yellow Tail Moscato apparently is new (at least, it’s labeled “NEW!”), and it is quite clean and tasty, with bright, refreshing fizz and just enough sweetness to support its fruit. It doesn’t really taste like moscato d’Asti: It’s more tropical, with mango and durian flavors. But at $5 from Total Wine & More, it is hands down the best cheap moscato available.
So if you want to try moscato and you’re on a tight budget, try the Yellow Tail. But I encourage you to move up to moscato d’Asti. For a few dollars more, you’ll get more complexity and subtlety, more verve and more fun.