Low-alcohol Moscato is perfect for seder

BY GAIL APPLESON, Special to the Jewish Light

Hip-hop performers have fueled the Moscato craze that’s been spreading across the United States the last few years. In addition to drinking this sweet, fizzy wine, Kanye West, Ne-Yo, Lil’ Kim, Ab-Soul and others sing about it. And the St. Lunatics, a group of St. Louisans that includes Nelly, even launched its own brand “Freaky Muscato,” which is made by Ste. Genevieve’s Crown Valley Winery. 

But take a closer look and you’ll find that Jewish consumers are ahead of the trend in this category. When Royal Wine Corp. imported Bartenura Moscato from Italy in 1999, this once somewhat obscure dessert wine took off immediately and became — and still is — the best selling kosher wine in the world behind Concord grape. According to Royal, it doesn’t matter if it’s Passover, Hannukah, Rosh Hashanah or Shabbat dinner…it’s still the top seller. 


Take Mindy Woolf of Olivette, for example. She and her husband Richard discovered Bartenura Moscato at least a decade ago when they sipped it at a wedding.

“Then we used it at our own wedding more than 10 years ago,” she said adding that they’ve been serving it for Shabbat and holidays ever since. 

Moscato wines are made from the muscat family of grapes that have hundreds of varieties. These grapes, which can be used for winemaking, eaten as table grapes or turned into raisins, range in color from white to almost black. If you check the grocery wine aisles, you’ll see white, pink and even red Moscato that comes from wine growing regions throughout over the world. However, probably the best known Moscato comes from the appellation of Moscato d’Asti DOCG, located in the southeastern part of Italy’s Piedmont region near the town of Asti.

These wines are made in a style known as frizzante, which means slightly fizzy. Fermentation is stopped at an early stage to keep some of the sugar from turning into alcohol. That process keeps the level of sweetness high while the alcohol level is low. 

While many Jewish consumers in the U.S. began to discover Moscato around the same time as Mindy and Richard Woolf, sales of this type of wine have grown dramatically among mainstream Americans in the last few years.  In 2011, Moscato sales grew by 73 percent in food, drug, convenience, mass merchandise and other retailers, the largest gain of any varietal, according to Nielsen statistics. Although Moscato sales growth in grocery stores has slowed to about 30 percent in the last 52 weeks — a trend that Nielsen believes is consistent among a broad range of retailers — that’s still a pretty healthy figure.

One key segment of the audience is “millennial” consumers, ages 21 to 34, who make up 26 percent of Americans of legal drinking age. These young adults are used to drinking sodas and other sweet beverages, so Moscato is an easy “gateway” entry level wine for them. 

And that’s one of the same reasons it also appeals to Jews who are used to drinking sugar-added Concord grape wines. But another huge plus is that most Moscato is low in alcohol.

“Speaking for myself and my wife, certified ‘lightweight drinkers’, we appreciate the 5 percent alcohol content, as opposed to the 10-12 percent typically found in other wines,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion “That enables us to actually make it through the complete meal, and remain at least semi-conscious for Birkat Ha’Mazon (Grace after Meals).”

Linda Markowitz, office manager of the St. Louis Kollel in University City, also cited the low level of alcohol in the Bartenura Moscato among key reasons it’s a best seller at the Kollel‘s bookstore all year long but especially at Passover.

“Most importantly at Passover, when it is incumbent to drink four cups of wine, the low-alcohol Moscato goes down refreshingly easy,” she said.

In addition, Markowitz said that consumers will pay a little more for the Bartenura because of its distinctive blue bottle. 

Marc Ventus, the manager of the Wine & Cheese Place in Creve Coeur, confirmed that the Bartenura Moscato is also the best-selling kosher wine at his store. Although Moscato is sweet enough to go with dessert, Ventus pointed out that consumers don’t feel they must restrict themselves to recommended food pairings and instead drink the wine in the way they prefer including at celebrations and with meals.

However, Moscato is not the end of the story.  The interest in “gateway” wines has given rise to a rising demand in mainstream markets for sweet red and semi-dry wines. So while mainstream brands are just now starting to fill grocers’ shelves, kosher labels have once again been out there for years. In just one example, Herzog Wine Cellars of California first introduced its Jeunesse line of semi dry wines in 2007 with a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lee Dresner, Midwest Regional Manager for Royal Wines, said the line was introduced to help consumers ease off sugar added wines like concord and to train their palates to like drier wines. 

“We are the trailblazers,” he said. “We had sweet reds before anyone else. We jump-started it.”