The Muscat grape is thought to be the world’s oldest known grape variety. Its recorded history of human cultivation goes back to the Greeks and possibly much earlier and it is probably the forebear of all the grape varieties known today. Moreover, Muscat is not one single variety, but a name given to hundreds of grapes. According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, more than 200 distinct grape varieties are called Muscat, in one language or another. This group is dispersed across the globe, encompassing cultivars of every hue, fermented into virtually every conceivable style. Some are related to one another and comprise a core family of Muscat varieties, while others are genetically distinct—perhaps simply sharing a particularly pungent “musky” aroma. While the first documentation of Muscat did not occur until the 13th century CE (found in De Proprietatibus Rerum, an important early encyclopedia of sorts by the English scholar and Franciscan Bartholomaeus Anglicus).

Yet even singularly considering what is arguably regarded to be the most noble Muscat, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, one will find a multitude of styles, including an array of sparkling wines, ranging from bone-dry to a level of sweetness achieved by few other bubblies; alluring dry whites from grand cru terroirs and other pedigreed sites; dessert wines that might be harvested late, vinified from raisins, fortified, or some combination of all three; and even a few stray botrytized and ice wines. And that’s just for one selection! No other variety can claim such varied traditions, from appellations across the globe and in every imaginable climate. Yet, when considering wine’s great international varieties, Muscat is rarely quick to come to mind. That should change—for through studying Muscat alone, few wine styles and few corners of the world are left untouched.

California Muscat Timeline

Muscat in California in the days of the Gold Rush, smuggled in by the French colony of growers in Santa Clara. Basque and Italian immigrants used to eat it as a table grape, finding delight in the little crunch of seed at the back end of its sweetness.

Officially introduced into California as a table grape. A few wineries made dessert wines in small batches.

The first raisin variety, “Muscat of Alexandria,” planted in the Fresno area in 1873 on 10 ha/25 acres.

Francis T. Eisen planted an experimental vineyard of Muscat grapes on 10 ha/25 acres along Fancher Creek, just east of Fresno. Years later this seminal planting was instrumental in the creation of Sun-Maid Growers of California, an American privately-owned cooperative of raisin growers.

Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyards, among others, popularized a dessert wine they called Muscat de Frontignan. Moving ahead, some cheaper Muscat wines were labeled as “Muscatel.” Finer wines were called “Muscat,” “Moscato” and other variations of the  varietal name.

Among the most popular wines made by the Cucamonga Winery in the namesake area of Southern California was a wine labeled “Dry Muscat.” Nearby Fountain Winery in the area now known as Bloomington was known for their bottling of “Light Muscat.”

Louis Martini makes, by chance, what will become known as Moscato Amabile, the first take on sparkling Muscat-based wine, in Kingsburg. Sold seasonally, it went on to attract a cult following over the years.

When Christian Brothers introduced a delicious Muscat wine, initially named “Light Sweet Muscat,” it was ignored. But after the winery changed the name to Chateau La Salle this light golden wine became one of its best sellers.

Andrew Quady released what would fast become California’s most popular Muscat wine: Essensia Orange Muscat. An Elysium Black Muscat was subsequently released in 1983.

Using an innovative process, applying cryo-extraction to frozen grapes, Bonny Doon Vineyard released its sundry “Vins de Glacière'' series, of which the Muscat Canelli is the most popular.

Quady Winery introduced a low-alcohol frizzante Moscato called “Electra” and it was immediately popular. Red Electra Moscato soon followed and is now Quady Winery’s top seller.

Moscato Madness takes hold. Gallo is selling at least six times the amount of sweet-tasting Moscato wine than just three years before. Moscato, a take on its Muscat origins, is the fastest-growing varietal in the U.S. wine business, making it a sales boom for Sutter Home, Beringer, and Robert Mondavi's Woodbridge label.

Muscat plantings stood at 3,031.50 hectares/7,491 acres  (2,983.34 hectares/ 7,372 acres bearing and  48.16 hectares/ 119 acres non-bearing) through year-end 2021, representing 1.62% of total vineyard plantings of all California wine grapes.

Muscat of Alexandria is the most planted of the rainbow of Muscat grapes in California, followed by Muscat Blanc á Petits Grains (Muscat Canelli), Muscat Orange, and (Black) Muscat Hamburg (Black Hamburg). As noted above and from a wine perspective, the grapes are used to produce mostly sweet varietal wines and blends ranging from dryish to sweet, still to sparkling.

In addition, California grows small amounts of some lesser-known Muscat varieties: Muscat Ottonel (a crossing of Chasselas and Muscat de Saumur, found principally in France’s Alsace region), Early Muscat (primarily a table grape, a cross between Muscat Hamburg x Queen of the Vineyard), Golden Muscat (a wine and table grape, a cross between Muscat Hamburg x Diamond), and July Muscat (primarily a table grape, and a cross between four varieties: Muscat of Alexandria x Flame Tokay x Muscat Hamburg x Scolokertek). Finally, while not counted per se as Muscat, Symphony, a cross between Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexandria, makes itself known in a few spots in the Golden State. 

Here's an overview of the primary Muscats found in California.

Moscato Giallo

A white Italian wine grape variety known for its large deep cluster of loose, deep-yellow berries and golden colored wine. Moscato Giallo is grown chiefly in northern Italy, where it is most often used to produce passito- style dessert wines. Moscato Giallo was long thought to be of Middle Eastern origin, with Syria being the birthplace most cited. However, in the early twenty-first century, DNA analysis showed that Moscato Giallo shared a parent-offspring relationship with Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (also known as Moscato bianco). As the first documented mention of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (under the synonym of Muscatellus) could be dated to the early fourteenth century, it is likely that the seemingly more recent Moscato Giallo is the offspring in the relationship. 

Muscat Blanc á Petits Grains

This Muscat grape, aka as Muscat Canelli, is thought to be the oldest variety of Muscat and the one with the most concentrated flavors. Jancis Robinson calls it “the most noble sort of Muscat.” The grape usually has small, yellow-skinned berries, but variations in color can run from pink to dark reddish-brown. This grape is widely but not extensively grown and is said to produce the best Muscat wines. The vine is vigorous, spreading, and low- yielding. Bunches of fruit are medium-size, elongated and compact. Berries are smallish, usually round, and transparent, becoming opaque with maturity. The flesh is firm and very sweet, with the juice having the characteristic flavor of musk. The grape is used to make dry table wines, frothy sparkling wines and many different kinds of sweet dessert wines. It is also used in the creation of innumerable blended wines, as a major component or a “bit player.”

Muscat Hamburg

A cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Trollinger (Schiava Grossa). It comes only in the black berried form, producing plump, shiny fruit. This grape is grown chiefly as a table grape but can be also used to produce wine. It is considered by some to make the lowest quality of wine made with Muscat grapes. In Eastern Europe (Serbia, Macedonia) the grape produces light, dry red wines with some Muscat aroma, and it is starting to gain popularity as a table wine ingredient in China. As a dessert wine, in the right hands, it creates a wine with a characteristic aroma of roses and a lychee, melony character to the taste.

Muscat of Alexandria

Like Muscat Blanc á Petits Grains, Muscat of Alexandria is an ancient grape. It is presumed that the vines originated in North Africa (possibly Egypt) and were disseminated around the Mediterranean by the Romans, earning it the synonym Muscat Romain. The vine is cultivated in fairly hot climates because it is sensitive to cool weather during flowering and needs heat for the grapes to ripen. Despite its limitations, Muscat of Alexandria is grown widely around the world. Traditionally it has been used as a table or raisin grape rather than a wine grape. Wine made from Muscat of Alexandria often lacks the complexity and depth of wine made with Muscat Blanc á Petits Grains. Wines are typically strong, sweet and straightforward. However, Muscat of Alexandria can produce outstanding wines, in Spain for example, where it is called Moscatel de Alejandria, and Portugal, where winemakers use it to make “Moscatel de Setubal.”

Muscat Ottonel

Created in the Loire by a French horticulturist in 1852 by crossing Chasselas and Muscat de Saumur. Muscat Ottonel was first cultivated in Alsace where it is one of the Muscat varieties allowed in the varietal designation “Muscat.” It is a white grape (the palest of all Muscats) used for wine and fruit. The berries are a faintly yellowish shade of green and medium in size. Easier to cultivate in cooler climates than the other Muscats, it ripens early and produces more delicate wines than Muscat Blanc á Petits Grains or Muscat of Alexandria. 

Orange Muscat

Despite the name, this is a white grape variety. When made into wine, it exudes a strong aroma redolent of candied oranges, orange blossom and apricot. It is produced in a variety of styles, ranging from dry to sweet. Little is known about its origins (France? Italy?) and some experts believe that it is not related to Muscat Blanc á Petits Grains. At one time popular in France, it is now chiefly grown in the Veneto region of Italy, and has made its way to Australia and North America (California, Oregon). The world’s most well-known Orange Muscat wine (Essencia) comes from Quady Vineyards in California. 

For a deeper dive on the key varieties of Muscat, check out Muscat Wines.