Here's the thing about Moscato: A lot of them are actually complex and delicious.

By Brian Freedman
June 16, 2020
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Of all the wines in the world, Moscato is easily among the most misunderstood. Sure, there are plenty of terrible ones out there, but that’s true of practically every grape variety. Over-cropped and poorly crafted Pinot Noir is also terrible!

But Moscato, especially Moscato d’Asti, with its telltale sweetness, aromatic lift, and gentle tingle of bubbles, is often described in terms that seem to have been lifted straight from the white zinfandel-bashing lexicon, with descriptors like "cloying" and "saccharine" and "manipulated" thrown around. Yet painting with that broad a brush is inherently inaccurate, not to mention unfair.

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Great Moscato—from both Asti as well as elsewhere around the world—can offer much more than that, and the best of them are absolutely delicious, boasting floral complexity that balances their sweetness.

Right now, as many of us are starting happy hour earlier and earlier with each passing week of sheltering in place, the low alcohol content of great Moscato d’Asti makes it a fantastic aperitif. It also pairs well with a wide range of cheeses, sings alongside spicy and aromatically complex food—try it with pad thai—and, to lift a trick that I picked up in a restaurant in Piedmont, Italy, more than a decade ago, a healthy splash of it lifts an otherwise standard-issue fruit salad to the stratosphere.

Of course, Moscato is also available in other iterations, too. Among my five bottle recommendations below, one of them is from almost as far as you can get from Asti and still be on Italian soil: The Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria is crafted from Zibibbo grapes—the local name for Muscat of Alexandria, essentially a cousin of the Muscat à Petit Grains that is more common in Piemontese Moscato d’Asti—that were grown on bush vines in the island of Pantelleria, a quick flight from Sicily. Some of the grapes were picked in August and allowed to dry in the sun for up to four weeks. Then, following the completion of the harvest of the rest of the grapes in September, the non-dried Zibibbo berries were crushed and, while they were being fermented, the dried ones were slowly added, which produced a wine of stunning complexity.

Moscato (or Muscat) can be dry, too. The Brash Higgins “ZBO” Zibibbo-Amphora is from The Riverland in Australia, and while it showcases the aromatic complexity of the variety, it’s fermented dry. This one is not nearly as easy to find as, say, the Pio Cesare Moscato d’Asti that I also recommend, but it’s well worth the effort. And even if you can’t get your hands on a bottle, it serves as a reminder that Moscato offers a far broader range of pleasures than it typically gets credit for.

These five, listed alphabetically, represent a range of styles, and are all delicious.

 

Brash Higgins “ZBO” Zibibbo-Amphora 2018 Ricca Terra Farms, The Riverland, Australia ($39)

Fantastically perfumed with apricots, honeysuckle, nectarines, and orange blossoms, as well as a hint of candied ginger and Marcona almonds. On the palate, this is dry and almost sherry-like, flashed through with lavender, hawthorne, orange blossom, lots of lemon oil, honeydew, honey tuille, and a lingering note of nectarines, apricots, and yellow apples on the finish.

 

Cascinetta Vietti Moscato d’Asti 2018 ($16)

Reminiscent of Sprite on the nose but far less sweet and infinitely more complex, this wine shows an entire basket of peaches and nectarines on the palate, with a gentle sweet spice that casts its sweet citrus flavors into excellent relief. Mouthwatering acidity keeps it all fresh and lively.

Fabio Gambina

Donnafugata “Ben Ryé” Passito di Pantelleria 2017 ($44 for 375ml)

Beautiful color, like melted gold in the glass. Distinctive aromas of flamed orange oils, ripe and grilled apricots, and golden raisins precede flavors that balance the sweet and the pith-like bitterness perfectly. Almonds, orange rind, peach pit, grilled pineapples, and honey flavors linger through the long, balanced finish. This is amazingly complex.

 

Pio Cesare Moscato d’Asti 2018 ($20)

Beautiful aromas of dried pineapples and papayas are lifted by a hint of jasmine and candied rose petals that set the stage for a palate with unexpected density and richness, all balanced by mouthwatering yet subtle acidity, lemon-lime, and orange creamsicle flavors.

 

Tenuta Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy “La Serra” Moscato d’Asti 2018 ($17)

A uniquely subtle expressions of Moscato d’Asti, with honeysuckle and orange blossom aromatics and taut, precise flavors of dehydrated and candied oranges and limes, lemon blossom, and—I mean this in a very good way—a note that reminds me of Honey Smacks cereal. And I love Honey Smacks cereal.