Pity poor Moscato. Like the child who never gets to hang out with the cool kids, this is the style that most serious wine professionals treat with disdain. And it's easy to see why. With the occasional exception, it’s light, simple, grapey and, worst of all, sweet. Wine is simply not supposed to be sweet – unless it gets the kind of special permission that has been accorded to late harvest wines from a limited range of traditional areas, or a few examples that are fortified or made from dried grapes.
Moscato's charge sheet also fairly includes the fact that it doesn't go with (most) food and (again with a few exceptions) doesn't improve with age. So what's the point of it? After all, as one British critic dismissively said, it serves “a fairly small niche”.
But that's just the way it looks to someone with a very specific view of what wine is and ought to be. Moscato, after all, fits the European legal criteria for 'wine' of being fermented from freshly harvested grapes, rather better than Port or the perversely named 'vin doux naturels' of France; its fermentation hasn't been abbreviated by the addition of a generous shot of brandy. And, as for its audience, if we step outside the wine arena, it would seem perfectly suited to vast numbers of people who enjoy sweet beverages like Sprite and Coca Cola, as well as the buyers of RTD – Ready To Drink – beverages such as Gin and Tonic and Rum and Coke, Sangria, Pimm’s and fruit flavored ciders, many of which tend to share Moscato's usual 5% alcoholic strength.
To acknowledge any kind of kinship with any of these, however, is to accept the taboo of wine being a 'drink' rather than an innately more noble product. My own conflicted view of this question stems from the time I spent living in Burgundy in the late 1970s. On a daily basis, I was surrounded by evidence of the relationship between wine and terroir. I knew growers who illustrated the difference between their wines with the help of jam jars full of soil that clearly showed how many more fossils, for example, there were on one side of the track than the other. I remember Jacques Seysses, one of the best producers of the Cote de Nuits, telling me about the variations in temperature one could feel when cycling through the vineyards. And in winter, I'd notice the plots of vines where the snow reliably melted first. I was also acutely aware of the passionate commitment most of the growers put into their craft, and the struggles they had with the climate.
But then I’d go to the supermarket to do my weekly shopping, and in the wine section (even then, I couldn’t afford to drink much Burgundy) I’d look at the huge piles of returnable litre bottles whose only distinguishing factor was their alcoholic strength. There were, as I recall, 10%, 11% and 12% versions whose price rose with each extra degree. These bottles, dusty old examples of which can now be bought on French eBay, were known as 'etoiles' after the stars that were moulded into their necks, and were sealed with simple plastic stoppers that would probably be rejected by modern laboratories for short-term storage of samples. And, in case you were wondering, there was absolutely no indication of the kinds of grapes that had been used in the production of these wines, or their provenance.
For the few francs – fractions of a dollar – they cost, I found them ideal for cooking with, and when violently chilled, for drinking if nothing else was available. But they had almost zero relationship with the stuff my neighbours were producing from their vineyards. In other words, they had no more ‘nobility’ than a Big Mac.
But, at a time when many Frenchmen were still drinking a litre or two a day, the etoile wines served precisely the same purpose as those hamburgers for the millions of people who happily quaff them daily at noon.
Of course some burger fans live on junk food, but many, many of the people who grab a fast food lunch also enjoy 'proper' food on other occasions.
Which brings me back to Moscato. Which I also see as being like a burger, like a pair of jeans, like chick lit novels or reality television. It’s not comparable to fine Burgundy, Bordeaux or any other wine I'm going to choose carefully to accompany a dinner party, but it's a terrific alterative to beer or Coca Cola, both of which are widely chosen by other people to drink with their meals.
And, just as crucially, it can be a great introduction to wine for people who've never had it before, or never found one they like. In China, where I'm writing this, an entire generation was groomed to believe that affordable 'wine' was almost always red and weedy, and came with a Bordeaux label, or from a Chinese brand whose unripe tasting wine was modelled on poor examples from France. The acceptance of wines that would have never passed muster in other export markets was at least partly explained by the readiness of Chinese consumers to consume unpalatable food and drink if it comes with health benefits – as, they were repeatedly assured, was the case with red wine.
Today, the quality of both the imported and local wine in China has improved hugely, thanks in some measure to the arrival of riper, tastier wines from Chile and more especially Australia. But, in the background, Chinese consumers have developed a taste for... Moscato. Until now, most will only have come across the style when traveling overseas, but now Chinese wineries are breaking out of their Gallic straitjackets to produce it themselves, or to import it for sale under their own labels.
Will Moscato become the default grape-based beverage in China, or America or anywhere else? I very much doubt it. But I do believe it will become an increasingly popular addition to the repertoire of alcoholic beverages – and Pernod Ricard seem to agree, given their recent launch of a canned example under the Jacobs Creek brand.
I don't actually drink Moscato very often myself, but I’d say the same about Muscadet. And Campari Soda and Pimm's. But when I do, I enjoy them all.