The Muscat family of around 200 grape varieties was probably the first ever to be identified, although there is a great deal of debate about when exactly that was. Some believe that it was in use as far back as early antiquity, up to 5,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt and Persia. Pliny the Elder described it in the first century AD as uva apiana, or “grape of the bees”. The name Muscat is also contested as to its origin, with the most common explanation from scholars being that it is derived from the Latin muscus, Greek moschos and Persian muchk – supposedly after the scent, which has been likened to that of a Southeast Asian musk deer. Whatever the real history of Muscat, most people agree that it’s pretty old.
The sheer breadth of varieties of Muscat mean that there are few consistencies between them all, but perhaps the main one is its strong “grapey” aroma. Otherwise, Muscat grapes can vary in colour, from pale yellow to near black, and can produce wines ranging from the driest examples from Roussillon to the sweet, highly alcoholic fortified wines of vins doux naturels in southern France and Greece. They mainly require hot climates in which to grow.
Muscat’s signature aroma is due to its high concentration of monoterpenes, 40 types of which have been discovered in the family of grapes.
This ancient variety of Muscat originated in Egypt, as the name suggests, and was transported around Europe by the Romans. This strong, sweet grape thrives in hot climates, offering good yields and ripeness. It has a distinctive “grapey” aroma, with tones of geranium.
It is an essential part of the wine industries across Iberia, South Africa and Australia, but estimating the actual scale of Muscat d’Alexandrie vinification around the world is complicated by the fact that the grape is also used for other purposes. In California, for example, most of the crop is used to make raisins.
Muscat a Petit Grains
The oldest known Muscat, and possibly the oldest grape, Muscat á Petit Grains stands out from the crowd with its exceptionally high concentration of flavour and, as its name suggests, particularly small berries and seeds. It has been cultivated in France since at least the time of the Romans, and may have been initially introduced by the Greeks.
Muscat á Petit Grains can produce wines that range from light and dry to sweet and sparkling, with notes of spice and oranges. It also comes in a variety of skin colours: white, pink, red and black (although never dark enough to create a true red wine). Sometimes the colour even changes between vintages. This variety grows across several regions in France, such as in Roussillon where it was dominant from the 14th to 19th centuries, and Italy, most famously in the Asti area of Piedmont. It is also widespread in Greece, especially in Samos, Kefalonia and Patras. Smaller amounts are also grown in Australia and California. It grows best in a Mediterranean climate due to its early budding, and yields are naturally small, partly due to its sensitivity to disease. Muscat á Petit Grains is recorded as having been grown in Germany in the 12th century and Alsace in the 16th century, which suggests that spring frosts were not as common at the time.