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The Wine Cellar: Muscats from France pair well with a variety of dishes

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

W hen it comes to dry white wines, don't immediately discount muscat. Dedicated winegrowers working in suitable terroirs offer dry muscats with marvelous perfumes and delicious flavors matching perfectly with an array of dishes.

Part of the confusion over muscat arises from there being more than 200 varieties of the grape. Some varieties such as Muscat of Alexandria lend themselves to producing sparkling, sweet wines such as northern Italy's popular Moscato di Asti. Farther south on the volcanic Pantellaria Island in the Strait of Sicily, growers air-dry Muscat of Alexandria grapes to produce the renowned Zibibbo dessert wines.

In France's southern appellations of Rivesaltes and Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois, growers use the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains variety to produce sweet, fortified Vin Doux Naturel wines. But the same variety can also produce terrific dry muscats. The white-skinned Muscat Ottonel and golden-skinned Moscato Giallo varieties provide additional options for producing dry wines.

Whatever the variety, growing muscat grapes in relatively dry, sunny terroir provides a key to making excellent, dry table wines. Roussillon, France's driest region tucked away in Catalonia along the southwestern border with Spain, provides optimal conditions. The strong, cold Tramontane wind from the north keeps the muscat vines free from diseases while allowing the grapes to ripen without losing vital acidity.

Muscat also performs well in Alsace, France's second-driest region nestled in the shelter of the Vosges Mountains in the extreme northeast. A sunny, but generally cool, harvest season enables the fruit to ripen with terrific balance.

Similarly, the dramatic slopes of the Dolomite Mountains surrounding the city of Bolzano in northern Italy's Südtirol -Alto Adige region offer optimal conditions. There, the muscat grapes balance the critical elements of enchanting aromas, ripe flavors and elegant, fresh acidity.

Try:

The 2014 Domaine Piquemal “Cuvée Élise” Muscat Sec, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, France (Luxury 49539; $10.99) uses primarily Muscat of Alexandria with a just splash of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. The vines toil in clay and limestone soils, and harvest occurs in mid-August to avoid over ripening.

An incredibly low yield delivers beautifully balanced fruit with modest potential sweetness, good concentration and terrific freshness. Fermentation in temperature-controlled tanks followed by early bottling capture delicate aromas and fresh flavors.

White flower and grapefruit aromas give way to ripe citrus, quince and peach flavors. Bright acidity frames the fruity, but dry, finish. Try it as an uplifting aperitif with mild cheeses. Highly recommended.

The2014 Castel Sallegg Steinleiten Moscato Giallo, Südtirol-Alto Adige, Italy (Luxury 44148; $17.99) comes from vines growing on gravelly, porous soils on sunny slopes overlooking Lake Caldaro. Fermenting the grapes in temperature-controlled tanks captures elegant mango and citrus aromas with light quince notes. In the glass, ripe citrus and quince flavors balance with fresh acidity and pleasant bitter hints through a fruity, yet dry finish. Recommended.

Olivier Humbrecht, one of the Alsace's most talented and accomplished winegrowers over the last two decades, offers the 2013 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Muscat, Alsace, France (Luxury 49530; $24.99). Humbrecht's biodynamic approach in the vineyards eliminates chemical applications and forces vines to toil naturally.

A challenging August hailstorm in 2013 put the vines and Humbrecht's savoir-faire to the test. They succeeded beautifully with this terrific wine made from Muscat d'Alsace (M uscat Blanc à Petits Grains) and Muscat Ottenel grapes grown in the Herrenweg de Turckheim vineyard's alluvial soils. The wine's seamless elegance and richness deliver irresistible pleasure. �

The light-yellow color unfolds delightful white-flower, peach and brown-spice aromas. Bright grapefruit, tart orange, quince and peach flavors balance with fresh acidity and mouthwatering mineral notes through the fruity, but dry, finish. Pair it with traditional Lenten fish sandwiches. Highly recommended.

Jean Boxler, another talented winegrower living in Niedermorschwihr, produced the 2012 Domaine Albert Boxler Muscat, Alsace (Luxury 47743; $27.99). Boxler's focused hard work in the vineyards realizes full fruition in this enthralling, beautiful wine.

The light-golden color delivers rose-petal, grapefruit and brown-spice aromas with light smoky hints. Ripe grapefruit, quince and peach flavors balance with rich acidity and a vein of lovely mineral flavors. The dry, full finish lingers pleasantly. Pair with lightly sauteed halibut. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone is the Tribune-Review wine writer.

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