If Captain & Tennille had only eliminated the letter 'r' from their 1972 hit single, muscat might have had more love. Like the bubbly rodents featured in the pop song Muskrat Love; the muscat grape whirls, twirls and tangos. In fact, muscat is one of the few varieties that can be served throughout a multi-course meal in a lively range of styles. Widely acknowledged as one of the oldest domesticated grape varieties in existence, muscat ranges in colour from white to black and is grown for wine as well as table grapes and raisins. Idiosyncratically, a muscat vine can produce berries that vary in colour from one year to the next.
Its ancient heritage has caused speculation that most grape varieties used in wine production today - the Vitis vinifera species - are descended from the muscat clan. Unsurprisingly, the muscat diaspora can be found in every wine and grape-growing region in the world. There are many muscat strains but all share pronounced grapey and floral aromas with a musky undertone purported to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Muscat blanc a petits grains, a French name that references small white grape berries, is considered the highest quality muscat subspecies and is known by dozens of synonyms throughout the wine growing world: in South Africa, the variety is known as hanepoot, which literally means 'cockerel's foot', reportedly due to the shape of the vine's leaves. Other punters contend that hanepoot is a distortion of the word hanekloot, which means 'cockerel's testicles', due to the tiny spherical shape of the grapes themselves; the lack of volunteers willing to perform a thorough scrutiny leaves this claim unconfirmed. Perhaps the bird-handlers at our defunct wet markets could weigh in on the dispute.
Muscat is probably best known for producing sweet wines from southern France called Vin Doux Naturels (VDN) - an odd name given that there is nothing 'naturel' about the production of this wine style. Shortly after VDN grapes are crushed, the sweet juice is liberally doused with distilled spirits, halting all potential yeast activity. The resulting white wine is spirited, sweet and grapey, which makes it a popular chilled aperitif on a hot summer evening.
In her best-selling book French Women Don't Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano argues that sweet wines consumed before a meal reduce the temptation to overeat. This advice is somewhat along the lines of my mum's admonitions, 'Don't eat that candy before dinner, young lady, you'll spoil your appetite.' Top VDN origins include Beaumes de Venise, Rivesaltes, Frontignan and St-Jean-Minervois, among others.
After a bracing VDN aperitif, serve lightly spiced prawns with a dry muscat from Alsace. The region produces the world's most elegant dry muscats, such as Trimbach's subtle orange-blossom scented 2007 (Fine Vintage, tel: 2896 6108) or Albert Mann's fresh citrusy example (firstname.lastname@example.org). Crispy roasted Cantonese chicken or a spicy Thai curry could follow with a juicy late-harvest muscat from Alsace, such as Rene Mure's apple-blossom perfumed Domaine St Landelin Muscat Vendange Tardive 2004 (Onereddot, tel: 2408 8320).
Italy produces muscat in various forms but by far its most popular are Asti and the distinctive Moscato d'Asti. These medium-sweet, lightly sparkling wines are a lovely pre-dessert palate cleanser or a lively match for salty Italian cheese (with muscat raisins, of course).
The piece de resistance in the muscat-love meal is a luxuriously rich dark drop from Rutherglen, Australia. Though most sunny regions craft muscat into sweet golden wines, none offer the aged complexity, mahogany colour and treacle-like richness of these fig-flavoured Australian stickies (dessert wines). As the schmaltzy 1970s duo trilled, 'it's pretty pleasin''.