Posted on | February 24, 2012
Written by | Robert Haynes-Peterson
As robust as the U.S. wine market has been over the past two decades, it’s hard to remember a phenomenon even closely resembling the recent trajectory of Moscato. “Ten, 15% per year, that’s growth,” says Mordy Herzog, partner/VP of Royal Wine Corp., agents for leading import brand Bartenura. “We need a new word for what’s happening to Moscato.” Lou Capitao, managing partner of Touchstone Wines, which imports Ricossa Moscato d’Asti, compares the rise of Moscato to the rise of Australian wines. “But Moscato is doing in two years what Australia did in ten,” he adds.
The numbers are stunning. For a grape considered one of the oldest in existence, and long featured in low-profile, underappreciated dessert wines, Moscato consumption has exploded since 2009. According to Nielsen data, overall Moscato sales rose over 70% in 2011 over the previous year, culminating in about $300 million in sales (compared to $100 million in 2009). And that is on top of 100% growth for the category in 2010. In fact, the research group Wine Market Council estimates that even if growth in 2012 settles down to 50%, over the course of this year Moscato is on track to leapfrog Sauvignon Blanc and White Zinfandel to become America’s sixth most popular varietal wine.
The Moscato-tization of the nation is impressing even its longtime practicioners. “Our Moscato sales have been doubling the past few years,” notes Emma Swain, CEO of St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery in Napa Valley, which has been producing Moscato since the late 1980s. “It really started taking off in 2009 in the Southeast, with St. Supéry being used in cocktails and as a luxury date night treat.” The winery recently stopped pouring Moscato in its tasting room—and put a four-bottle limit on purchases online.
For further perspective, St. Supery’s Moscatos (they make both Napa Valley estate and North Coast bottlings) represent the luxury end of the Moscato price spectrum, at $25 SRP. The bulk of the action in the Moscato arena is taking place in the $8-$15 range, and while St. Supéry is a still, fruit-forward dessert wine with balanced acids, many of the most popular brands are produced in a simple, sweet, frizzante (gently sparkling) style.
Simple Style, Wide Appeal
Indeed, one of the most amazing aspects of the Moscato story is that it is unfolding outside the parameters normally used to gauge wine categories and trends. Ratings are not driving this bus. The words terroir and Moscato rarely appear in the same article, let alone sentence. It hardly matters that there are some 30 clones of the white Muscat grape, and it grows in almost every major wine region in the world (alternatively labeled Muscat or Moscatel) and that expressions can range from still and perceptively dry to vibrantly bubbly or sticky-rich. Indeed, Moscato is a pop wine in the truest sense; its popularity is fueled by its simple, welcome taste. The aromatics and flavors present a cornucopia of easy-to-love elements, from flowers and honey to tropical, citrus, lychee, melon, apple and stone fruits (especially peach), with upfront sweetness providing an overall family resemblance. Balancing acidity, most keenly expressed in Moscato d’Asti, keeps the wine bright. Moscato is refreshingly easy to say, sip and buy. It’s a happy wine.
While it’s the pop taste that keeps people coming back, there is also no doubt that Moscato’s popularity owes a huge debt to pop culture. Hip-hop culture, to be more precise. Rappers like Drake, Ab-Soul, Kanye West and Lil’ Kim injected Moscato into their lyrics, propelling it to status as a hip-happening club drink. As Ab-Soul sings: When things get hard to swallow / We need a bottle of Moscato.
Urban clubbers represent a significant audience for Moscato, but not the only one. Interestingly, other parts of the fan base are comparable in that they are not the usual wine-drinking suspects. Speaking on behalf of Wine Market Council in January, Nielsen’s Danny Brager characterized the Moscato audience, vis à vis the typical American table wine audience, as younger, more female, non-white and lower-income. Anecdotally, many if not most are first-time wine drinkers.
While the notion of a large, young, thirsty and previously untapped demographic market may be a marketer’s dream, Moscato’s rapid ascent has made overall analysis of the phenomenon somewhat tricky. Gallo launched its Barefoot Cellars Moscato—the largest brand in the U.S. at about $6 a bottle—way back in…2008. Growth for the California giant has been tremendous—it now has four other Moscato labels (Gallo Family Vineyards, Mirassou, Bella Serra, Naked Grape) and holds 43% of the market share, but it is only a four-year history. Similarly, Australia’s Yellowtail and Jacob’s Creek, both influential in that country’s surging U.S. sales a decade ago, didn’t launch Moscatos until 2010. And Bronco, a perennial category leader from California, launched its two Allure bubblies just last year.
Getting a Handle on the Moscato Drinker
Hard statistics behind the success of Moscato are hard to come by, according to Trinchero Family Estates Senior Director of Marketing Wendy Nyberg: “The category grew so fast, and was never segmented out in wine category analysis. This year, we expect much more documented consumer data.” Sutter Home’s foothold in the Moscato market has been buoyed by history; it was actually the first wine produced in California by the Trincheros, reflecting the family’s Piemontese roots.
From Nyberg’s perspective, the new Moscato drinker is “urban, young, hip and online. There is a viral enthusiasm for the wine on Twitter and through pop culture.” In terms of sales, “off–premise is the growth driver for Moscato,” says Nyberg, with restaurants slow to adopt Moscato for by-the-glass programs so far. Top markets for Sutter Home include New York, Chicago, Detroit, Northern Virginia, Richmond/Norfolk and New Orleans, she notes, “making us believe Moscato is being served in more clubs.”
There is plenty of optimism that the youth factor will keep Moscato momentum strong. Nearly a third of all professed Moscato drinkers are Millennials in their 20s. Lou Capitao thinks today’s youth are unimpeded by yesterday’s perceptions, aiding in the wholesale adoption of Moscato. “In my day, we used to ‘think dry and taste sweet,’ but they don’t care. They’re much less pretentious, and just want their drink to taste good.” There are also suggestions that the American palate trends sweet and fat during economic hard times.
Affordability is a factor as well. To some degree, rappers have helped supplant Champagne (expensive) with Moscato (affordable) as the drink of choice for clubgoers. The African-American influence on the category can not be underestimated: R&B and hip-hop clubs from Houston’s Club Isis to Atlanta’s Sports Zone Bar & Grill are offering free Moscato as a draw on Ladies’ Nights. If these new consumers are hooked on the flavor profile—and the lifestyle—they could stay with Moscato a long time, the way Boomers took to White Zinfandel and later Merlot.
Demand Aside, What About Supply?
Such dramatic enthusiasm around a millennia-old grape poses serious questions for growers, producers and marketers. Demand is outstripping supply. “We have even top-grafted some Semillon over to Moscato, and are still unable to keep up with demand,” says St. Supéry’s Swain. Other producers in California are reportedly securing bulk grapes from across Northern Italy, or sourcing from Chile.
But how to meet long-term demand, and is it worth it? California is answering a tentative “yes” by stepping up plantings, but not by much. In 2005/’06, the state as a whole planted an additional 380 acres of Muscat of Alexandria over the existing 2,785, then stagnated. In 2008/’09, another 218 acres were planted.
In Italy, new plantings are mostly happening outside the most critically acclaimed source of the sweet stuff, namely the Moscato d’Asti DOCG. “I am worried,” says Enore Ceola, managing director at Mionetto USA. While better known for Proseccos, Ceola says Mionetto has marketed Moscato 10 years (it currently has the “IL” Moscato and Moscato Dolce expressions), witnessing 80 to 90% growth in the past two years. “We’re seeing the category become crowded; everyone wants to be in the game. But quality is always the most important thing.” With broad expansion of entry-level products and producers scrambling to meet demand, Ceola says, “It would be a pity if quality dropped. A good Moscato is a great option for younger drinkers and people who like sweet wines, but they stop paying for it if the quality goes down.”
Because the word “Moscato” refers to the grape, anyone can make a Moscato anywhere, blend and ferment it how they like. While Italy immediately comes to mind, France, California, Australia, South Africa and Chile are all players. (There is even a sparkling rosé Moscato from Moldova—Exclusiv, SRP $9.99.)
There are bound to be some internal debates in coming months, not only on sourcing, but also on stylistic variations. Some larger suppliers are extending their Moscato bottlings (still/sparkling/white/pink), but who knows which format will click best? Australian brand Jacob’s Creek has multiple variations, and parent company Pernod Ricard has even come out with a whole new sparkling pink brand, ZED. Perhaps they are hedging their bets, ready to ramp up whichever style takes off. Meanwhile, Jacob’s Creek chief winemaker Bernard Hickin says, “There is a trend upwards at the moment for still Moscato that is more fruit driven and fresh, fresh, fresh.”
It’s hard to argue with fresh and sweet as a delicious and popular combination.
What’s Next for the Big M?
Moscato’s breadth of bottlings, novel demographics and not-too-serious orientation suggest a wide range of developments to keep an eye on.
New Shapes, Sizes & Looks.
As brands jockey for shelf share, expect a variety of physical variations to reach the market. Examples include Voga’s signature cylindrical bottle; a frosted white, longneck bottle from German producer Schmitt Sohne’s “fünf” brand; and Bandit in a 1L Tetra-Pak carton. Opici’s Villa Rosa is getting a makeover this spring. Similarly, Bartenura took advantage of a two-month sell-out of its first sparkling pink Moscato to revamp its package and bolster supply (they are making ten times as much under the new design). With bottle sales in lounges and clubs on the rise, we can expect more upscale looks; the curvaceous blue-glass Maschio “PM” is a new frizzante from Banfi, slated for spring release in Atlanta and Detroit. More 187mls and 1.5Ls should crop up, but not 3L bag-in-boxes; bubbly examples will remain in 750ml size, with cork and synthetic closures common. Alice White Lexia Moscato from Australia is available in 500ml cartons; Innocent Bystander, also from Australia, offers a sparkling pink version sealed with a crown cap.
Line & Portfolio Extensions.
An already familiar pattern is larger producers adding Moscato to existing varietal lines and broad-shouldered importers stocking several different labels in their portfolio. For example, Bronco has added Moscatos to its White Truck, Crane Lake, Forest Glen, Coastal Ridge and Motos Liberty labels, and Trinchero Family Estates has just complemented its flagship Sutter Home with a Moscato under Ménage à Trois. Beringer has white, pink and red Moscatos in the portfolio now. Several suppliers, such as Santero, have successfully offered multiple sparkling versions. Palm Bay has Moscato well covered with Cavit, Cinzano Asti, Petalo and Mondoro. Aveníu has not only Santini, but also Umberto Fiore, Belmondo and Voga from Italy and Two Oceans from South Africa.
What may prove very interesting is to see more extensions coming from Italy—both from Asti and beyond. Ruffino recently launched a Moscato d’Asti, priced competitively at $15. Kobrand has extended its own-label Caposaldo brand with a Moscato from Lombardy. Cupcake, while not known as an Italian brand at all, nonetheless has brought two bubbly northern Italian Moscatos to market, one from Asti, one sourced from other vineyards in Piedmont. Winebow extended its Stella line, sourcing Moscato from Sicily. Vision Wine & Spirits’ Montefiore, in response to demand, is complementing its $15 Moscato d’Asti with three $9.99 extensions: a mostly-Moscato “Sweet White” from Piedmont, a Moscato from Puglia and a new pink Moscato delle Venezie due in May.
Not everyone is expanding offerings, however; Cape Classics’ South African brand Jam Jar is a sticking with the formula for success of its wildly popular Sweet Shiraz, and has no plans to bottle more than one (first vintage 2011), which has quickly established itself a leading still Moscato at around $10.
Blends, Hybrids & Cocktails.
Why not? Moscato lovers have already demonstrated that they are not very tradition-minded, so novelty alone should not be a hurdle in the Moscato arena. Conundrum is a classic California example where Muscat adds distinct floral notes to a blend; others include Big House White, Seven Daughters, Amberhill “Secret Blend” and Sokol-Blosser “Evolution” (Oregon). Riunite D’Oro combines Moscato and Trebbiano, both sourced from Puglia. A new release from France, Gérard Bertrand “Muscato,” is half Muscat of Alexandria and Small-Grain Muscat, creating a $15 table wine that expresses itself more as fresh and fruity than sweet. Arbor Mist’s Mango Strawberry Moscato might make a collector cringe, but Moscato-teers are certain to grin and grab it. And Quintessential wine’s new pink frizzante import, “Mochetto”—with 10% red Brachetto enhancing 90% Moscato—breaks delicious new ground at $16.99. Torres “Esmeralda” partners 85% Moscatel with 15% Gewürztraminer. Perhaps the biggest wild card that could be in Moscato’s future is what happens at nightclub bars; one cocktail that has already earned a name is the Baroc, a 4:1 combo of Bartenura Moscato and Ciroc Vodka.
Bigger Bite for Sweet Tooths?
Maybe the sweetest question of all is whether Moscato’s popularity will lend its halo to other sweet wines. Perhaps fans of the light, fizzy style will tilt toward richness. If so, candidates in line to benefit include Australian “stickies” (e.g., Chambers, Yalumba) or traditional French AOC Muscats such as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (e.g., Jaboulet); Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois (e.g., Les Petits Grains) and Muscat de Rivesaltes (e.g., Château de Jau). Demi-Sec Vouvrays and off-dry Rieslings certainly fit the flavor profile, but still carry reputations of consumer confusion. Then, of course, there are sweet reds, a blossoming category that is already showing signs of Moscato-like explosiveness. And because sweet reds—unlike Moscato—can be created from various grapes, that prospect in particular has many suppliers salivating.