Nectar of the Gods

Why does Samos produce some of the very best Muscat? Tim Atkin takes a lesson in ancient

Greek American Review

Stavros Anastasiou had been working in his vineyard all day, but there was no sign of weariness in his face. Only the scale roughness of his hands betrayed his 76 years; his features were those of a 55-year-old. Late in the afternoon, Anastasiou was busy planting a new terrace to add to the six acres of bush vines he already owns. My wife doesn't approve,' he told me, 'but I love this spot and this variety.

The place, tucked away in a comer of the Aegean island of Samos and fringed by olive and pine trees, would get the thumbs up from most of us. But the variety, Muscat, is usually regarded as something of a second , division grape. Samos has been growing Muscat, and only Muscat, for more than 150 years. No one's sure how it came to be there or why farmers switched from growing tobacco to grapes. But today this beautiful island is Muscat's Greek home from home.

Muscat and Greece go back a long way, almost certainly to the time of Socrates, when the grape was prized for its sweetness and perfume. In fact, Muscat is one of the oldest Vitis vinifera grapes of all, cultivate in hot climates all over the Mediterranean, from Italy to Spain to France to greece, as well as in South Africa and Australia.

The problem with Muscat is that it's a big family, and its members can have very different qualities. Jancis Robinson's indispensable Guide to Wine Grapes lists four main varieties of Muscat - Muscat Hamburg, Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Ottonel and Muscat Petis Grains. Of these, the last is the finest by far. The other Muscats often taste rather coarse and bitter by comparison..

How do you know when you're tasting Muscat Petits Grains? It's not as easy as you might think, as Muscat has dozens of synonums from Muscat de Lunel to Muscat Canelli, Muskateller to Moscatel de Grano Menudo.

Robinson's tip is to avoid anything with the words Alexandria, Gordon, Romain, Hamburg or Ottonel on the label. Even so, Muscat is often sneered at by wine connoisseurs. They say its charms are too obvious (possibly because it's the only grape that smells and tastes strongly of grapes), its appeal too simple. This is an over-simplification of the truth. Muscat at its most basic can be unappealing, but it is capable of variety and diversity - Asti Spumante, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Muscat d' Alsace and Australia's Liquer Muscats are all made from the same grape.

I'm very partial to Alsatian Muscats. I even have a fondness for Asti Spumante when it's fresh and well-chilled. But the great Muscats of the world, to me at least, are barrel-matured ones. The fortified stickies of Rutherglen in Victoria are often aged for 20 years or more, achieving remarkable concentration and complexity. These are some of Australia's greatest wines. Less well known, but just as good, is the 2000 Nectar produced on Samos by the island's quality-minded cooperative. This is made from dried grapes, including some of the bush vine Muscat grown by Anastasiou. Buying a bottle would be a small reward for a lifetime's hard work.

HCS readers may wish to view other articles and releases in our permanent, extensive archives at the URL

2000 © Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.