The Muscat grape has grown round the Mediterranean for millennia. Its name probably derives from the fact that its perfumed musky aroma attracted insects (moschaton in Greek, Musca in Latin). Such an old variety inevitably has different versions (at least 18) and different names which can cause confusion. Generally it is known as Muscat in France, Moscato in Italy and Moscatel in Spain and Portugal, but it has nothing to do with Muscadet, which is made from the Melon Blanc grape.
The principal variations of Moscatel include dark skins, pale skins, large grapes and small grapes. In Spain, by far the most important of these is the large, pale-berried Moscatel de Alejandria, which is thought to originate in Egypt and was spread round the Mediterranean by the Romans. This grape made Malaga famous and is also used as a table grape. It can flourish in hot climates, producing healthy yields of very sweet grapes. Luckily, it is not terribly fussy about the type of soil, making it extremely useful in the Sherry zone, as the Palomino insists on the best chalky albariza soils.
Moscatel has made its home in the Sherry district at Chipiona (though it is also grown in Chiclana) where it is the only wine aged there which can carry a Denominacion de Origen. The town of Chipiona is on the coast, just south-west of Sanlucar, and has much sand and some clay in its soils. This suits the Moscatel just fine, and grapes or musts are bought in from here to supply the bodegas in Jerez, Sanlucar and El Puerto de Santa Maria. They either bottle it as Moscatel or use it in their sweeter blends. Known locally as Isidoro, the Moscatel de Chipiona has a pale skin and many bunches of large round juicy grapes. It likes to grow near the sea where it can benefit from the moist Atlantic breezes.
|Moscatel vines at Chipiona and sunning grapes (Consejo Regulador)|
Some wine is made from super-ripe grapes with the fermentation stopped by the addition of alcohol giving very fruity "Dorado) wine, but most is made from grapes which have been sun-dried for between 15 and 30 days, depending on the weather, losing about half their weight through water loss, but retaining their huge sugar content, and notably, some acidity giving balance to these really sweet wines. The yield is, of course, considerably reduced, and huge quantities of sunned grapes are needed to make any worthwhile quantity of wine. The juice from these grapes is also fortified with alcohol, and sometimes some Palomino must is added to dilute the massive sugar content. The wine is a bright golden colour, and some "arrope" or"vino de color" (boiled down must) might be added to give it that familiar brown colour. Alternatively, lengthy ageing will do the same.
In the past this kind of wine was known as “Bastardo” because it was made abnormally - without fermentation, and it formed a notable part of the sack trade, especially with England, where the sweetness was prized, as very little sugar was available until the XVIII century. Chipiona has certainly been a part of the wine trade since the middle ages, and probably much longer. In the last few decades, however with ever falling sales of Sherry, there remain only three producers of this classic wine:
Bodega-Cooperativa Catolico Agricola
Bodega Mellado Martin
|Part of the Museo del Moscatel, Chipiona|
Should you be in Chipiona – which I would recommend, there is a very interesting Museo del Moscatel (www.museodelmoscatel.com). There is an annual Festival del Moscatel, which starts this year on the 14th August.