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Mar 06 2017

Muscat of Alexandria: Nectar of The Ancients

Although they can be devoured straight off the vine or dried into exquisite raisins, grapes of the ancient variety Moscatel de Alejandría (Muscat of Alexandria) come into their own when used to make traditional sweet Spanish wines, as well as more recent styles of dry and sparkling wines – all of which attest to this Mediterranean grape’s quality, singularity and surprising versatility


Thought to be one of the world's oldest cultivated plants, Moscatel de Alejandría (Muscat of Alexandria) is an ancient vine alleged to have come from North Africa, where its fruit was used for winemaking by the Egyptians. It is also likely one of the oldest genetically unmodified plants still in existence, whose large and loose clusters of yellowish-green fruit are known for their intensely characteristic aromas.

Spain boasts around 10,000 hectares of this vine, which has thrived here for centuries, especially along the Mediterranean coast from Catalonia down through Valencia and Alicante to Málaga, and to a lesser extent in other parts of Andalusia including Montilla-Moriles, Sherry-Jerez-Xérès and Condado de Huelva.

Moscatel de Alejandría, a dominant and historically representative grape in Denomination of Origin Valencia, is used to make the region's classic mistela, the sweet Moscatel liqueur made by mixing alcohol and grape must. Here the grapes are grown in the central subzone of Moscatel de Valencia, where these heat-loving vines bask under a warm sun tempered by Mediterranean breezes.

Sweet Alicante

Another area known for its mistelas, as well as different styles of wines made with Moscatel de Alejandría grapes, is the Marina Alta region of DO Alicante. The grapes here are influenced by a maritime microclimate and yield highly aromatic and unctuous wines, which are characterized by their aromas of orange blossom, jasmine and lilies.

Some area winemakers have been drawing international attention to this area in recent years with their Moscatel de Alejandría wines. One such wine is Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega's Casta Diva Cosecha Miel, for which the free-run must from late-harvested grapes is fermented in French oak barrels, before fermentation is stopped by the addition of (grape) alcohol, in order to leave the desired amount of residual sugar. The wine is then aged for thirteen months in oak, yielding the elegant aromas of orange blossom honey, rose water and bitter orange, on a background of toasted almonds and vanilla.

Also in Alicante, Bodegas Enrique Mendoza offers two wines made with a similar technique. The winery's Moscatel de la Marina is brilliant yellow in color, with intensely appealing aromas of honey, orange peel and fresh mandarin oranges, as well as balsamic and herbal notes. This sweet wine is light on the palate with a crisp acidity and wonderful finish. For its part, the Moscatel de Mendoza is made from riper grapes and aged for ten months in new French oak barrels. A more complex wine, it emits aromas of honey, marmalade, jasmine and toasted notes, and has a soft and elegant mouthfeel.

Aromas of Málaga

But DO Málaga is where Moscatel de Alejandría truly steals the show. Here, venerated winemaker Jorge Ordoñez is proving that the region's traditional sweet wines are yet another top-notch product that takes advantage of the region's special characteristics and century-old vines. (Tons of quality raisins are also produced here annually from this grape.)

Ordoñez is nothing if not a proud native son of this region and its wines. "Moscatel de Alejandría is the native grape of this region, the oldest clone of the Moscatel brought here by the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago. Sweet wines made with this Moscatel from Malaga were extremely important exports to Russia and were served to the Tsars. Catherine the Great even lowered taxes on these wines to honor their quality. But with the arrival of the Phylloxera pest, most of these vineyards were wiped out. [Following this] the making of sweet wines had been devalued by adding sugars. And as a malagueño in love with my land, I wanted to recover and bring value to the traditional method of making sweet wines in Málaga."

But Ordoñez, who produces four sweet Málaga wines: Nº1 Selección, Nº2 Victoria (served at the dinner for 2016 Nobel Prize Winners in Stockholm), Nº3 Viñas Viejas and Nº4 Esencia, didn't stop there. "With regard to Botani, it came about through the vision of famed Austrian enologist Alois Kracher, who made a dry wine from an extraordinary grape that had always been used to make sweet wines. It was a complete revelation and success."

By "Botani", Ordoñez is referring to his dry Moscatel de Alejandría wine (he also makes a sparkling version), which was named to the prestigious list of the top three "Greatest Value Wines of the Year" for 2016, according to American wine guru Robert Parker. The organic grapes used to make this singular, dry white wine come from old vineyards – some planted 120 years ago – on the steep slopes of quartz-rich mountainsides in Axarquía. The grapes are painstakingly harvested by hand with the help of mules, and then transformed into this exceptional wine.

According to Ordoñez, "Historically the vineyards were a way of life for the locals. It is impossible to terrace the steep slopes, and therefore the grapes receive indirect sunlight that comes from all directions. This facilitates optimum ripening. Also, this difficult landscape only allows for organic farming, which enhances the wines' final quality. The extreme difficulty of the terrain has led to a unique, artisanal way of doing things that results in wines that are also unique."

International customers seem to agree, with 65% of Jorge Ordoñez's wines exported all over the world, to destinations including Australia and countries in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa. And as for Robert Parker, the Wine Advocate guru thinks that Botani is the best-perfumed white wine in the world. "[It has] all of the aromas of an incredibly beautiful bouquet of flowers, which is reason enough to drink this medium-bodied, extremely fragrant and seductive wine, with a crisp touch. An elegant wine."

Thought to be one of the world's oldest cultivated plants, Moscatel de Alejandría (Muscat of Alexandria) is an ancient vine alleged to have come from North Africa, where its fruit was used for winemaking by the Egyptians Adrienne Smith/@ICEX
Muscat of Alexandria
Muscat of Alexandria
Muscat of Alexandria

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