It may be the hippest wine you've never tried. Moscato, an unusually fragrant, often moderately sweet white, is on a tear south of the border. Sales have doubled in the past year, exceeding 10 million nine-litre cases. That thrusts it ahead of such well-established varietals as shiraz and riesling.
Barely a fringe category five years ago, moscato owes its rocket ride up the grape charts to a demographic that's largely eluded most other most other wines, new drinkers in their 20s and 30s. A key reason? It can pretty much be summed up in two words, and I don't mean easy-drinking or Facebook and Twitter. Try hip hop.
Rap royalty such as Kanye West, T.I. and Lil' Kim are fans. Kim rhymed it - perhaps inevitably - with "yo" in a song called Lighters Up. West once mentioned it in an MTV interview and reportedly orders it in for parties.
But credit for the most influential boost arguably goes to a Canadian, actor-turned-rapper Drake, who ingeniously rhymed it with "model" in a 2009 duet with fellow rapper Trey Songz on the latter's I Invented Sex: "It's a celebration/clap, clap bravo/lobster and shrimp and a glass of moscato/for the girl who's a student and her friend who's a model/finish the whole bottle/and we gonna do it big like this."
Props to my Canadian homie: It would indeed pair nicely with lobster and shrimp (though I can't vouch for the "friend who's a mahhh-doh"). Moscato is Italian for muscat, a variety with a floral scent and unmistakable flavour of white table grape. It's a signature of Alsace in France, where fine, dry renditions sell for $15 to $20. More commonly, it's the unnamed ingredient in Asti, the cheap Italian bubbly that comes in a champagne-style bottle, as well as the source for far superior moscato d'Asti, a slightly crackling Italian dessert white that comes in a regular-cork bottle and is not to be confused, quality-wise, with the former.
Recently, though, a myriad of U.S. and Australian producers have chimed in with mostly still, medium-sweet, gluggable renditions that tend to sell for $6 to $7. That's where the big growth is even if the wines represent, shall we say, a stark contrast to other liquid totems commonly celebrated in rap lyrics, such as Cristal Champagne and Hennessy Cognac.
And now moscato is starting to make a splash in Canada in the $10 to $15 range. In British Columbia and Alberta - the front lines of the phenomenon here - hot brands include Sutter Home from California and Innocent Bystander from Australia. In Ontario, two big brands have just been launched, California's Barefoot and Australia's McWilliam's, both distributed by E&J Gallo Winery.
"This urban element has kind of got hold of it," said Brett Marshall, Canadian sales director for Napa Valley's Trinchero Family Estates, which owns Sutter Home and pioneered the category in the United States with its once-sleepy moscato decades ago.
Though I generally recoil at Italy's frothy Astis, I'm can appreciate the appeal of American and Australian versions, which often weigh in at a scant 6-to-9-per-cent alcohol and pair remarkably well with grilled foods and fresh salads. Think of them as white zinfandel with an Italian accent. For the anti-snob, moscato can be a consummate warm-weather refresher, though Marshall says he was surprised to learn recently that one of Sutter Home's biggest regional markets now is the northern state of Michigan, specifically the urban-music mecca of Detroit.
"We're discovering that it really appeals to the millennial population because it's very approachable and it has great, expressive fruit flavours," said Stephanie Gallo, vice-president of marketing at E&J Gallo Winery in California. "There's a lot of buzz around it, but many people still have not heard about it, so there is tremendous potential for growth." And that's music to the wine industry's ears.
Joie Farm Muscat 2010 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $23
Here's a muscat (a.k.a. moscato) that a connoisseur need not feel compelled to hide under the table. Completely dry, it leans toward the floral, stone-fruit side of the spectrum, though there's plenty of the moscato variety's classic white-table-grape flavour in the mix. It would pair beautifully with shellfish, including raw oysters with a dab of hot sauce. Higher in alcohol than many modern moscatos, at 11.4 per cent, it's still light. Available in British Columbia through www.joie.ca.
Joseph Cattin Muscat 2009 (France)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
From the grape's high-end homeland of Alsace, this totally dry white complements the floral-grapey flavour with a dusting of minerals and spice. It would match nicely with freshwater fish, such as trout.
McWilliam's Hanwood Estate Moscato (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $13.95
This beauty seduced me. As a wine geek, I initially felt a pang of embarrassment. Was anybody watching as I gleefully took a second sip? How could I like sweet, "unserious" moscato this much? Light-bodied and almost spritzy with zest, it weighs in at just 6 per cent alcohol and displays the essence of white table grape, while its medium sweetness is nicely balanced by refreshing acidity. Like most moscatos, it could double as a dessert wine for moderately sweet dishes, such as biscotti or sponge cake.
Barefoot Moscato (California)
SCORE: 82 PRICE: $9.95
The No. 1-selling moscato in the United States, this just overtook Sutter Home in sales and recently became widely available in Canada. Sweeter than the McWilliams above, it's also heavier and stronger, at 8.5-per-cent alcohol. I like the faintly musky quality but yearn for more acidity to lift the sugar.