Muscat Canelli proves a delight

 
 
Published12/5/2007 12:34 AM

Sometime in the next couple of months, you are going to have a big dinner with friends and family that you simply don't want to have end. Isn't it great when that happens? You've been eating for hours and you've already had some lovely wines, but there's plenty more laughing and talking in all of you. What should you do about the wine? At this point, many people go for Port or other significant dessert wines, or maybe even Cognac. We prefer something lighter, simpler and less alcoholic. We reach for Muscat -- specifically an American wine called Muscat Canelli.

We're suckers for Muscat, with its unique aromas and tastes of honeysuckle, apricots, peaches and just-picked grapes. The only problem is that the name "Muscat" takes in a lot of territory -- and we mean that literally, because it's grown pretty much all over the world -- and comes in all sorts of styles.

 

The first sweet wine we fell in love with, many years ago, was Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, from the Rhone Valley of France. Dry Muscat from Alsace is a wonder, and there are few wines more charming than slightly sparkling Moscato d'Asti from Italy.

These days, after a big meal, we prefer a kind of wine sorbet. Many Muscats, including our old favorite Beaumes-de-Venise, are fortified, leaving them not only sweet but high in alcohol (at least 15 percent or so). How can you identify a Muscat that is lower in alcohol and lighter in taste? Here's one tip: Look for Muscat Canelli.

Muscat is an ancient grape and there are several main varieties. The finest variety is Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, which is the one usually called Muscat Canelli in the U.S. For years, our favorite lighter Muscat wine has been Moscato d'Andrea from Robert Pecota Winery in California, which is made from Muscat Canelli.

We wondered if there were many other Muscat Canellis out there and how they were, overall. We checked stores nationwide and ultimately chose a large sample. These tend to be made in very small quantities, so, in this case, we went particularly deep to get a good sample.

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We ordered Texas wines from a large store in Texas, for instance, bought some made in Missouri, found a good selection from California's Temecula Valley at shoptemeculawines.com and got some from wineries in some other states from a Web site called appellationamerica.com. With an Internet connection, a little time and a bit of creativity, most people now can order all sorts of interesting wines online, and this is one example.

Because sweet wines aren't very popular, these tend to be reasonably priced. Indeed, we didn't pay more than $20 for any of them. (The Pecota was the most expensive, ounce for ounce, because it cost $12.99 for a half bottle.) Almost all of them were identified as Muscat Canelli on the front label, though in a few cases we had to look at the back label, ask a wine merchant or check a winery's site on the Internet. The alcohol content ranged from 7 percent to 12.7 percent, but most were around 10 or 11.

Having tasted the wines in blind flights over several nights, we feel quite comfortable with this advice: Find a Muscat Canelli that's 12.5 percent alcohol or less, chill, open for your guests -- and you will have a wonderful time. The wines, on the whole, were a delight. They were filled with honeysuckle and orange blossoms; with all sorts of fruits, from apples to pineapples (some actually reminded us of pineapple upside-down cake and, really, who doesn't smile at the thought of pineapple upside-down cake?).

While the wines were sweet, and we know that many people don't think they like sweet wines, the good ones were balanced with lemony acidity that made the wines light on their feet as well as light in texture. Dottie summed it up nicely at the end of one flight when she said simply: "These are gentle wines."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Of course, they were not all winners. Some were too sweet and heavy, without the necessary balancing acidity. These wines should ooze charm, not sugar. And unfortunately, there's not much room for error in these wines. Because they are best when they are light and airy, even just a little too much of anything can make them unbalanced and clumsy. But overall, the wines were lovely and perfect for after-dinner conversation.

Generally, the wines in our sample from California were best, with more of the essential balance of light and sweet.

Our favorite, once again, was the Pecota, which always makes us feel like we're in the middle of a field of flowers. ("This makes me think of Easter," said Dottie, recalling Grandma Dot's brown-sugar basted ham set in a halo of peaches and oranges.) It's a happy wine that's best served with cookies and close friends.

Readers often ask us how long to age various wines. Our response is that, truth be told, you can never tell for sure, and we were reminded of that during this tasting. We would most certainly recommend that you buy and drink Muscat Canelli as young as possible. Good ones taste like a souffle -- light and ephemeral -- and you wouldn't want to eat an old souffle. But in the course of this tasting, we decided to open a 1997 Pecota Muscat that had been sitting in the cellar for no good reason -- and it was pretty darn spectacular: rich and dark, with ripe, roasted mangoes, oranges and carambolas, sprinkled with cinnamon, nutmeg and coconut (yep, coconut). It was amazingly light despite its richness.

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