Thursday, January 16, 2014

Cats, gods, moscato

When you buy new couches for the first time in twenty years, naturally the cats think the purchase has been made with them in mind. Cats were gods in Egypt, you know. And have never gotten over it.

Speaking of ancient and godly things, how nice it is to go to a local park after work and sip moscato from a little plastic cup, alongside good company of course. In the first lines of his book Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson writes, "those who first felt the effects of alcohol believed they were being given a preview of paradise. Their anxieties disappeared, their fears receded, ideas came more easily, lovers became more loving when they drank the magic juice. For a while they felt all-powerful, even felt themselves to be gods."

As to moscato specifically, of course it has been all the rage for a year or two now -- "moscato is paying my mortgage," a salesman half-jokes -- but wine writers agree that it is probably the oldest cultivated wine grape of all. Its hundreds of varieties are the first clue that mankind has been experimenting with it since his collective and god-worshipping childhood days, since Greece and Rome and Egypt before that. One has a vision of Egyptian temple cats prowling the long-shadowed columns of Luxor and Memphis, interrupting busy people, leaning over jars and pawing confusedly at baskets of grapes. And all with that general "you're doing this wrong" expression on their faces.

At the heart of the huge and ancient family of muscat grapes is the variety called Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains ("white muscat of the little berries"), known by many other names around the world including Muscat Canelli, Brown Muscat, Muscadel, Muscat Frontignan, or simply Frontignan. From this grape we mankind make our popular, sparkling moscato d'Astis from Italy and our equally popular still moscatos from California and beyond. From it we also make a sweet fortified white wine, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, from France's Rhone valley, a region we know better for its robust, dry syrahs and grenache-based red blends.

A second variety of the muscat family is Muscat of Alexandria -- note the reference to Egypt -- a third, Muscat Ottonel. Ron and Sharon Herbst's New Wine Lover's Companion tells us that both these latter tend to be consumed either as table grapes or rendered into sweet, heavy dessert wines that are the specialties of Spain, Portugal (Moscatel de Setubal), and Austria. Might it not be the case nowadays, also, that these two lesser brethren help make their share of the oceans of wine officially labeled moscato? -- for really, how much good quality muscat of the little berries can there be in the world? Still holding that thought, before we go a step further we should emphasize as well, while we (so to speak) lean over jars and paw confusedly at baskets, that all these strains and varieties of the family are not to be confused with --
  • Muscadelle, a white grape grown in Bordeaux and added in very small quantities to sweet white wines based on sauvignon blanc and semillon;
  • Muscadet, another grape used to make light white wines in France's western Loire region near the city of Nantes. Muscadet, the local name for the grape "properly called Melon de Bourgogne" (why on earth?) is also the name of the Appellation Controlée Muscadet-de-Sèvre-et-Maine, which produces the best of these wines;
  • and Muscadine, an entirely different grape family native to the American South and therefore not of the Old World, vitis vinifera wine-grape species at all. This species' Latin name is vitis rotundifolia (round-leaved), its most familiar variety the scuppernong.
Moscatos are often described as being the most fragrant and the "grapiest" of wines, wines that taste most like a handful of sweet, cracking-ripe grapes eaten fresh on a warm summer day. Hugh Johnson instructs us again, on wine's origins in mankind's remote past: "Men and women who lived in the regions where vines grow wild could scarcely fail to notice" and enjoy, and eventually make a most interesting drink out of, grapes, "a seasonal part of their diet they must have looked forward to." When we sip a moscato, especially en plein air and in good company, do we revisit our ancestors' experience of successfully preserving a favorite fruit as a divine drink? I wonder what they called it.

The word muscat seems to have its origins in the English and French word musk, meaning a lush, flamboyant scent. In English musk carries very slightly unpleasant connotations -- or at least, I've assumed it does -- of ranginess or sharp dankness. Not everyone likes a musky perfume.The word is in turn derived from Latin, Greek, and Persian words all sounding similar and meaning the same thing, a good and pronounced scent (muscus, moschos, musk, respectively). 

When we explore beyond Persian to Sanskrit, it gets weird. The Sanskrit muska looks innocently enough like another old word for muskiness. We suspect it's one of those purebred words, so basic to the human experience that it isn't derived from anything because it has only ever meant itself  Mother is one, water another, and a curious favorite, cinnamon, a third (from the Hebrew qinnamon, meaning cinnamon). But muska is the Sanskrit not for any good smell but for testicle, and is itself derived from a diminutive for mus, mouse. So it would seem that some Sanskrit-speaking wag in the mists of prehistory -- was it a woman, munching grapes, perhaps? -- decided to name somebody's testicle "mousie," after which somehow the meaning of this muska broadened to include the scent-containing sac in the abdomen of the musk deer, plus any strong scent, plus a particular very tasty grape with a lovely aroma, plus the wines made thereof. See the article "You'll never drink muscatel the same way," (and how) in The Economist's Johnson blog of June 15, 2011, and by all means go to your own Merriam-Webster dictionary to check the author's sources. Mouse itself appears to be another pure word with no etymology; it comes from the Indo-European mus, meaning mouse. So unlike testicle, which comes from the Latin word literally meaning witness. "See TESTIFY." Why on earth? One would think, ahem, "mousie" would be so basic to the human experience as to deserve its own word.      

In Grapes and Wines Oz Clarke sums up our ancient moscato nicely. Listen to him say that people don't like it much. He was writing, to be fair, just before these latter years when everything changed, and moscato became the mortgage-paying Godzilla we adore. Perhaps we should salute his prescience. "I'm afraid," he says,
...Muscat is the victim of a current white wine obsession driven by the distinctly unexotic charms of Chardonnay, the tangy attack of Sauvignon and the all-pervasive influence of vanilla-scented oak. But when these fashions have all faded away, Muscat, the original wine grape, will still be there to remind us why this whole thing got started in the first place. 
Why it all got started in the first place? Any self-respecting cat could easily elucidate, in between bouts of ear-twitching at all this talk of mice. Why? -- why else, but to pour out libations?

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