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Muscat Wines Steal Sauvignon Blanc's Slot

Sweet, low in alcohol and low-priced, these varieties are cheap to grow

by Paul Franson
sweet wines
Muscats racked up 2.8 million 9-liter case equivalents in the 52 weeks ending Jan 22.
Napa, Calif.—It wasn’t that long ago that Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) displaced Sauvignon Blanc as the second most popular white wine variety in the United States. Now Sauvignon Blanc has ceded its third place status to fast-growing Muscat wines. Chardonnay remains by far the best-selling wine, red or white.

Symphony IRI reports that volume sales of Muscats, generally labeled Moscato, racked up 2.8 million 9-liter case equivalents in the 52 weeks ending Jan 22. For that period, Sauvignon Blanc sales were 2.77 million cases. Muscat sales grew at 70%, while Sauvignon Blanc grew at only 7%; total table wine volume was about 84 million cases, and total table wine sales were $6 billion during the period, according to Symphony IRI.

By dollars, Sauvignon Blanc remained in third place with $265 million compared to $186 million for Muscats. This reflects the low retail prices of the most popular Muscats: The average price per bottle was $8 for Sauvignon Blanc vs. $5.54 for Muscat. However, Muscat dollar sales are also growing at 70%, so the variety will likely climb to third place by revenue this year.

Like Pinot Grigio, which rose from nowhere to raging popularity in the past decade, Muscats originated in Northern Italy. Patterned somewhat after elegant Moscato d’Asti or Asti, formerly called Asti Spumante, the most popular wines are low in alcohol, frizzante (mildly bubbly) and slightly sweet, with the characteristic floral “grapeiness” of Muscat grapes.

The wine is most popular with younger drinkers, but it also appeals to the multitudes that don’t like drier wines: Those who might have chosen White Zinfandel or sweet cocktails.

Moscato’s popularity among urban hip-hop and rap performers fueled interest among millennial-generation drinkers. Rap star Drake gave a shout-out to Moscato in his song “Do It Now,” and DJ Khaled, Kanye West, Lil’ Kim and Waka Flocka Flame have all mentioned it in songs or videos. “Real Housewives of Atlanta” reality star NeNe Leakes is creating a “Miss Moscato” line.

The varietal has also become a popular club drink mixed with vodka.

Muscats have been on the market for some time, including the more upscale ($25 list for 375ml) Robert Mondavi Moscato d’Oro—the most-requested wine in the winery’s tasting room—and St. Supéry’s  $16 Moscato, which regularly sells out, has its own wine club and limits on purchases. But like many other wine trends, the recent phenomenon seems to have started with E. & J. Gallo.

Gallo introduced Barefoot Moscato in 2008 in response to customer requests for a sweeter, light-bodied wine, according to Stephanie Gallo, vice president of marketing. The wine retains more than 6% residual sugar and a modest alcohol level close to 9%.

Gallo has depended on word-of-mouth and some social media, but it hasn’t promoted the wine through advertising, yet Barefoot is now the top Moscato in the U.S., and the company’s Gallo Family Vineyards version ranks third. The company also produces and imports Moscato under at least seven brands, with more coming.

E. & J. Gallo’s Mirassou Winery has expanded distribution of its California Moscato to all 50 states. First launched into key U.S. markets last April, the Moscato is priced at about $12 per bottle, comparable to Mirassou’s other wines. 

Trinchero’s Sutter Home is in second place and also offers variations including Sutter Home Bubbly Moscato and Pink Moscato, Terra d’Oro Moscato and Trinchero Family Estates Moscato. Trinchero also blends Muscat into its popular white wine, Mènage a Trois.

Altogether, Gallo is estimated to produce 4 million cases per year, Trinchero 3 million. Most are inexpensive wines, but wines in the teens are also selling well.

Jumping on the bandwagon, Australia’s Yellow Tail introduced its version last April, and the brand sold 330,000 cases by the end of the year; it is expecting twice that this year.

As with Pinot Grigio, although the craze may have started with Italian wines, U.S. producers are now driving the market. They’ve scooped up all the Muscat they can find—typically ordinary Muscat of Alexandria also used as a table grape—and growers enthusiastically have been planting the prolific grapes. It typically produces more than 20 tons per acre, a necessary yield to produce wines that can sell for less then $5 per bottle.

Until the vines mature, U.S wine companies are importing wines from all over the world where Muscat is grown, including Italy. Because Muscat grapes are so fragrant, many producers blend in neutral varieties like French Colombard to extend the volume.

The Moscato craze has been compared to that for wine coolers or today’s sweet red blends, but it might be like White Zinfandel, which still remains strong if less popular than in the past; or Pinot Noir, rosés, or Pinot Grigio, which appear to have legs.

One thing is for sure: Growers are planting Muscat as fast as they can, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, where yields are high.

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