These Muscat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain are nearly 100 years old and have been retrained about a dozen times after winter damage
PHOTO BY TODD NEWHOUSE
Muscat grape varieties, the hottest selling wines in America, have also been the hottest selling grape nursery stock. And while there’s been an uptick in Muscat plantings in Washington State, in general, the state’s wine industry is taking a cautious approach to the latest wine fad.
Inland Desert Nursery, Washington’s largest commercial grape nursery, sold out their Muscat planting material in 2011 and 2012, reports Kevin Judkins, nursery manager. “Muscat has been the most widely planted grape in California the last two years,” he said, but adds that orders are beginning to fall off for next year. “It was pretty hot but now seems to be cooling. A year ago, demand didn’t seem like it was going to slow down anytime soon, but the Muscat sales surge might have already hit its peak.”
Though Inland Desert, located in Benton City, had a banner year for Muscat sales, most planting material was sold out of state, Judkins said. Muscat varieties have been very popular in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern states. Texas growers alone have been buying 10,000 to 20,000 vines every year for some time.
The Muscat varieties have also caught the attention of Midwest grape growers. Michigan State University researchers have been testing Muscat varieties in field trials. Paolo Sabbatini, MSU Extension, says the Moscato wine is the perfect wine for the American sweet tooth and could become a signature wine for Michigan.
“But Washington growers have been pretty cautious in their planting, unlike other states,” Judkins said. State acreage numbers bear out Judkins’ assessment. The most recent Washington grape survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which represents acreage planted through 2010, reported 177 acres of Muscats planted in the state. Judkins believes that another 100 to 150 acres of Muscat grapes were planted during 2011 and 2012, based on the number of Muscat vines that Inland Desert sold to Washington growers over the last two years. That would nearly double the official estimate of Muscat acreage in the state to an unofficial estimate of around 300 acres, a significant number but nothing compared to California’s 7,000 acres planted.
“Our growers are hesitant to plant at the prices that the Muscat grapes for bulk wines in California are bringing,” Judkins said. Prices paid to growers for Muscat grapes ranged from $390 to $750 per ton in 2011, according to the most recent California crush report.
“If wineries have grape contracts to give out, Washington growers would just as soon plant red varieties that are tried and true, have better pricing, and a stronger long-term outlook than jumping on the Muscat bandwagon,” he added.
Rick Hamman, viticulturist for Mercer Estates and Hogue Ranches, has only observed limited Muscat plantings in the state. He knows of a ten-acre block of Muscat Canelli planted in Horse Heaven Hills under contract for Hogue Cellars several years ago that’s used for blending and Moscato-style wines, but he’s not seen widespread new plantings.
Hamman has a word of caution for growers interested or being pressured to plant “hot’ varieties. “If you plant a variety that only a few wineries are interested in, you need to be prepared for when that variety goes ‘south’ and the wines are not as popular. If you lose your contract, who else will be interested in your grapes?”
Even if the Muscat grapes are being used for blending, they impart a distinct flavor profile to the wines, a flavor that may be desired by only specific wineries. When mainstream varieties are planted, growers have more options of where to take their grapes if demand falls off for the niche wines, he said. “But that’s not the case with niche varieties.”
Washington’s oldest Muscat vineyard, planted in 1917, is still producing today, says Todd Newhouse of Outlook Vineyards. The 95-year-old Muscat of Alexandria vines, owned by the Newhouse family, are located on Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside. The next oldest in the state is a block of Muscat Hamburg, also owned by the Newhouse family, and was planted in the time frame of 1917 to 1950, and they planted Morio Muscat in 1979.
Last year was the first time in several decades that Muscat vines were again planted in Outlook Vineyards. Muscat Canelli, Orange Muscat, and Muscat Ottonel went in. But Newhouse said that their Muscat acreage is about 30 acres, just a small part of their hundreds of acres of grapes.
“A fair amount of our Muscat ends up as Riesling wines,” he said, explaining that the bulk of what’s produced in the state is grown for blending purposes, though wineries also use the grapes to make off-dry, Muscat wines.
Newhouse uses grapes from their near-centenarian Muscat vines to make ice wines for his Upland Winery. He describes Muscat wines as being very aromatic and great to drink cold on a hot day.
“Muscat wines are more forgiving when it comes to quality and ripeness,” he said, noting that the variety is one of the earliest ripening grapes in the state and growers can produce quality even at higher tonnage. Most of their winery contracts allow yields of seven tons per acre, a target he says is easy to hit. Some varieties, like Hamburg, are winter hardy, but he says that Canelli and Muscat Blanc might be less winter hardy.
“I’d be really hesitant to put more in the ground than what we’ve got planted,” Newhouse said. “Who knows how long the trend will last? We just can’t compete with California growers who can produce 15 tons.”
Newhouse hasn’t heard of wineries aggressively seeking new Muscat contracts. “We did a planting for one of the big in-state wineries last year and have an option to plant more, but the winery seems to be backing off and losing interest in additional Muscat acreage.”
Another old block of Muscat Canelli, planted in the late 1970s and still in production, is located at Phil Church Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. The block of about ten acres of Muscat is sold to Precept Wines, according to Brian Weinmann, vineyard manager. A lengthy contract for the grapes was first held with Covey Run, which made Muscat Canelli wine with the grapes, then with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and now with Precept.
“The fruit has always had a home,” Weinmann said. “It’s a niche variety, and we have no plans to add more, nor have we had requests to plant more. It was on the chopping block in the late 1990s to get pulled, but it’s still there.”
The older Muscat block has been damaged from several winter events and now averages only four to five tons annually. The variety, with its large clusters and berries, can be prone to bunch rot, but Weinmann said that typically a hand crew can thin out the rot before harvest. “Rot is usually pretty easy to clean up unless it’s a high pressure year.”
Colin Morrell of Lonesome Spring Ranch, Benton City, planted Orange Muscat in 2001 and Muscadella du Bordelais in 2006—way before the Moscato craze started. He has 5.5 acres total. Morrell chose the Muscadella because of its value in blending with Bordeaux whites like Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The Orange Muscat is used by a Prosser winery for dessert wines.
Morrell admits he faced a steep learning curve with the Muscadella variety the first few years, dealing with shatter and low yields. He almost pulled the vines out. “But I learned to leave kicker canes, which have helped me achieve more sustainable yields.” The kicker canes help divert excess vigor from the vine, with shoots from the canes cut off around bloom time.
Bunch rot has been an issue with the Orange Muscat, and he’s had to do a lot of thinning to battle significant rot in the last two vintages. “It’s not like growing Riesling,” he said.