What to Expect from Moscato Wine with Donnafugata's Jose Rallo

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Photo: Joe Roberts

It’s often thought that wine consumers have an On Again, Off Again relationship with Moscato wines. Sure, we spent a good deal of time in the early 2000s drinking tons of the stuff, only to sour on it somewhat not too long after it besieged the global wine market.

As Wine Enthusiast once put it:

“Headlines boldly declared America to be in the grips of “Moscato Madness,” before the wine tumbled out of fashion. Yet, Moscato held court long before that, and will do so for a time long to come. Moscato Bianco (a k a Muscat blanc à Petits Grains, Muscat Blanc and Muscat Canelli) is considered the noblest of the family and has been cultivated for at least 800 years. It’s also the variety responsible for the most recent Moscato boom as the base of Moscato d’Asti, the style that many commercial brands seek to emulate.”

In other words, totally writing off Moscato is a bit of a fool’s errand, especially considering that it’s widely regarded as one of the noblest family of grape varieties, and has been with us for almost as long as we’ve been fermenting grapes into alcohol as a species. It seems that Moscato wines, no matter if they are from Italy, California, or Australia, can’t be removed from our hearts as wine drinkers because it’s simply been a part of our wine drinking DNA for way, way too long at this point.

Interestingly, Moscato grapes were (and still aren’t) just grown for wine making; they are also still cultivated as table grapes in several parts of the world. That’s both a testament to Moscato’s inherent deliciousness, and also a good explanation of why those grapes were chosen long ago to be fermented into wine in the first place. Moscato is just abundantly aromatic, fruity, tasty stuff.

While Moscato can offer lively, simple, sweet wines that are among the easiest of any fine wines to appreciate and enjoy, there is a lot more to this highly aromatic grape variety (which has many versions and aliases) than sip-and-forget bottlings. Jose Rallo, the voice and face of Italy’s celebrated Donnafugata winery, knows Moscato well — when she is not indulging her love of jazz singing, Rallo helps to oversee this Sicilian producer’s quality systems and marketing initiatives, which in no small part involve Moscato (charmingly called Zibibbo in her area of Sicily). In the late 1980s, the Rallo family (now with the fourth generation heading up the winery, with over 160 years of total wine business experience among them) expanded their business from the main island of Sicily to the smaller isle of Pantelleria, where Moscato had been made in traditional ways for centuries. The Rallos breathed new life into the Moscato market there, with both their sweet and dry styles of wines.

Here are Jose Rallo’s thoughts on what makes Moscato a special wine grape variety, what you should expect from a superior bottle of wine made from it, how to best match this aromatic wine with the right foods, and why Mscato achieved such lofty heights of popularity among U.S. wine consumers.

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What should wine drinkers expect from Moscato / Zibibbo wine? Given that there are many different styles made (from sweet to sparkling to dry), are there certain elements or characteristics that are consistent for most wines that are made from the MOscato family of grapes?

“A Moscato wine made from an aromatic variety like Moscato di Alessandria (Zibibbo) should generally have a quite complex and rich nose. The style of the wine (dry/sweet) and its relative vinification process will determine its characterizing elements. Dry Zibibbo is made with fresh grapes, generally high in acidity with lower sugar. [Sweeter Moscato] is made with fresh but very ripe grapes, almost like a late harvest. The dry or sweet versions should be fresh and fragrant in the mouth, with typical rose and orange blossom and fruity notes (citrus and melon), with a mineral background. Passito [a style of dessert wine that is a specialty of the island of Pantelleria] is made with both fresh and dried grapes, and will show more dried fruits like apricot, figs, dates and nuts, but should never lack in acidity.”

What are your recommendations for food matches for Moscato wines (considering both dry and sweeter styles on the market)?

“We recommend to pair a dry Zibibbo with all types of oily fish, baked pasta in white sauce, or fried fish. If we move away from Italian cuisine, then we can imagine it as well with Asian food, due to its aroma and crispness. Try it also with some olives and fresh cheese as an aperitivo. Sweet Moscato versions are perfect with savory cheeses, fruit salads and baked desserts. It is worth trying with "bottarga" (tuna roe), big smoked fish, and goat cheese. We suggest pairing naturally sweet Passito like our Ben Ryé with foie gras, or blue veined cheeses such as Roquefort or Stilton; but it also matches desserts like dark chocolate or dried biscotti with almonds. Last but not least, it deserves to be tried on its own.”

Why do you think Moscato is so popular with wine drinkers (particularly when it was such a big hit in the U.S.)?

“The rich aromas of Moscato/Zibibbo are easy to recognize without being banal. It’s a wine with great potential of producing very different styles, thus allowing it to meet different tastes, so it's something familiar which can be offered in very different tasting occasions.”

Is there anything else that you think would be important for wine lovers to know about Moscato / Zibibbo wines? Are there Moscato specialities that lovers of the grape should try to discover?

“Besides being aware of the different styles and vinification techniques (and as a consequence being aware of the different qualities [imparted by each]), it might be important to know that Zibibbo grown on the volcanic island of Pantelleria expresses at its best its potential due the different microclimates and its soils, being particularly enhanced with minerality.”

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a.k.a. Joe Roberts. Dad, wine-writer-guy, wine critic, wine competition judge, author, bassist, free-thinker, & occasional hiney-shaker. Opening up highly-pressurized cans of whoop-a** on the wine industry since 2007. Joe is a Certified Specialist of Wine, and the author of Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings.

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