Emerald Riesling and Symphony), I'm a big fan of Dr. Harold Olmo. Olmo was perhaps the most prolific and successful grape breeder in the history of the United States, but he was also a leading figure in many other areas of viticulture as well. He was an early proponent of clonal selection, and this lengthy obituary (he died in 2006) of him credits him with changing California's relationship with the Chardonnay grape. For many years, Chardonnay was unpopular in California because it wasn't very productive and the wines made from it weren't that great. Olmo tested several different clonal variants of the grape to try and find more productive and higher quality vines, and it is thought that his success in this endeavor is responsible for Chardonnay's extraordinary popularity today. Whether that's a good thing or not from a taste perspective is a very different question from whether it's a good thing or not from an economic perspective Regardless of what your own personal feelings are about the Chardonnay grape, the fact remains that it has become a significant cash crop for California winemakers because the quality and the quantity of the grapes being grown is higher.
Not all of Olmo's discoveries and projects were such unequivocal successes. Many of the grapes that he created for wine production were intended to be high-cropping vines that had good disease resistance and which could be grown in some of the hotter and drier regions of California where traditional vinifera varieties were unsuccessful. Many of the grapes that he created are still grown in California today, though you rarely see any of their names on bottles because much of their production ends up as bulk wine. Some people may see this as a failure on Olmo's part or may wish to criticize him for breeding bulk wine grapes, but one must remember that this was really what he was trying to do, and he was remarkably successful at it. One should also note that while most of the production from these grapes ends up as bulk wine, some producers do try to make quality wines from them by limiting yields and carefully managing the vines in the vineyard and the results of their care can be very good in their own right.
Harold Olmo created table grapes in addition to creating wine grapes, and many of his creations can still be found on your supermarket shelves. The first few grapes that Olmo released (in 1946 and 1958) were actually table grapes, as there was a big push at this particular time to create more seedless table grapes to supplement the Thompson seedless, which, for quite some time, was actually the only seedless table grape available in the US. Many of his creations used various Muscat grapes as one of the parents (or somewhere in the pedigree), as the intense aromas and high sugar contents that the Muscat family was able to pass along to its offspring were very popular with consumers. Olmo's first grape release was the table grape Perlette in 1946 (one of whose parents was the aforementioned Thompson seedless). There were a handful of others over the next few years and then in 1958, Early Muscat was released (the actual crossing was purportedly in 1940, but quality trials take a really long time...Symphony, for example, was also first crossed in 1940 but wasn't released until 1981).
Early Muscat was created by crossing Muscat de Hamburg with a grape called Reine des Vignes in France and Koenigin der Weingaerten in German, both of which translate to "Queen of the Vineyards" (and which was the other parent for Olmo's first grape, Perlette). Reine des Vignes was created by Hungarian breeder János Mathiász in 1916 by crossing a grape called Queen Elizabeth with Pearl of Csaba (which, incidentally, is also one of the parents of Irsai Olivér). Pearl of Csaba was itself created in 1904, and one of its parents was called Muscat Courtillier, which is also known as Muscat Précoce de Saumur. The "précoce" in the name means early, and the grape is known for its early ripening and short growing season, which makes it a popular choice among grape breeders. This early ripening quality was passed along through the family tree, and, together with the Muscat flavors from its great-grandfather and its father, created the grape we now know as Early Muscat.
Early Muscat, like many of its forebears and relatives, was initially created as a table grape variety. As we discussed in my post on the Lakemont and Himrod grapes, the qualities that breeders are looking for in a table grape are rarely the same as the qualities you'd want in a wine grape. For the most part, table grapes are bred to be prolific yielders without any seeds and with very thin, mostly flavor-neutral skins. It is possible to make wine from these grapes, but it is generally inadvisable. Some winemakers do occasionally try it, though, and occasionally it works out well. A few years back, some winemakers in Oregon noticed that Early Muscat grew really well there and decided to experiment with it. It wasn't exactly a phenomenon, but these days a handful of different producers do grow the grape and make wine from it (which is, apparently, sometimes difficult to buy as consumers snatch up the wines almost as soon as they hit the shelves).
Spirited Gourmet for around $10. The most recent information on the winery's website indicates that the current blend for this wine (listed as NV on the PDF, but 2011 on the actual website) was 63% Early Muscat, 17% Riesling and 20% "red blend." The 2009, which is the wine that I tried, is actually labeled Early Muscat, which means that it must have at least 90% of the stated variety in it,* though it's obvious that there's still some "red blend" in this wine because Early Muscat is a white grape and this is a fairly deep salmon pink wine with a very light fizz to it. The nose was intensely aromatic with strawberry, peach and lychee fruit along with fresh flowers and orange blossoms. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity. It was pretty sweet with just a faint prickle of CO2. There were flavors of strawberry candy, peaches, mandarin oranges and something a bit grapey as well. The flavor profile was very fruity and kind of candy-ish, with the wine tasting a bit like cotton candy at times as well. It wasn't aggressively floral, as some Muscat-based wines can be. It's a summer slammer wine, really, that is meant to be gulped and gulped quickly for maximum enjoyment, and if you approach it with that kind of mindset, you'll probably find a lot to like about it. It's not complex or deep or profound, but it is tasty and easy to drink and I'm totally fine with that sometimes.
*Remember that the rules are a little different in Oregon. In California and most of the rest of the US, if a variety is stated on the label, the wine only has to be composed of at least 75% of the stated variety. Oregon's laws dictate that the stated variety must make up at least 90% of the wine, which explains why the bottle on the PDF shelftalker from their website does not have any varietal designation, if the most recent bottlings are only 63% Early Muscat.