Muscat may be the most sensible, down-to-earth grape there is. Unlike so many other varieties, it doesn't play around: Ferment it into wine, age it for a time, and pour it into the glass, and it still smells and tastes like the grapes from which it was made. Muscat, in fact, is said to be the only wine in which the esters and aromatic compounds of the grape transfer detectably and unchanged to the wine.
And about those esters and aromatic compounds: They are fantastic. The wine (and the grape) is known for its fragrance; it often smells of orange, melon, and spices. Winemakers thousands of years ago surely enjoyed the same aromas when they first began using Muscat, whose origins are uncertain but may lie in Greece. Records show that the Romans introduced the variety to northern Europe. The grape also went east to Russia and southward into the African continent. It arrived in Australia in the 1830s, and European immigrants to the United States eventually brought Muscat to our shores.
In California, several types of Muscat amount to about 5,000 acres of grapes, just 1 percent of the industry. Indeed, the wine is not prevalent and can be hard to find. A recent browsing through BevMo! found just a half-dozen California Muscats, several of which go by the name Moscato. The Muscat grape, in fact, constitutes a family of grapes that includes some 200 varieties with names like Muscat of Alexandria, Black Muscat, Orange Muscat, Moscatel de Setubal (from Portugal), and Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains.
We drew from the shelf the cheap one -- but by a respectable winery, Fetzer Vineyards, from Hopland in Mendocino County. Fetzer's 2010 California Moscato was, like many Muscats, low in alcohol (just 8 percent ABV) and a bit sweet yet balanced by a zesty acid character. It smelled of melon and orange juice, and its pleasant fruit taste was notably of pineapple, tangerine, apricot, and, well, grapes, of course.
Fetzer Winery 2010 California Moscato: $7.99 at Beverages and More, 3445 Geary (at Stanyan), 933-8494