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Sunday, January 29, 2012 - 2:15am

Moscato Madness: The Dessert Wine's Sweet Surge

Updated: 2 years ago.

In the U.S., wine drinking has held its own during these hard economic times, and even grown in some unlikely corners. Moscato, for example, the Italian dessert wine, has gone from relative obscurity to the toast of the town.

Hip-hop singer Drake, in his song "Do It Now," gives it a shout-out. It's also the wine Kanye West orders for special parties. And it's the wine Real Housewife of Atlanta NeNe Leakes has just started selling under the label Miss Moscato.

Until a few years ago, the ancient Italian wine could have been described as obscure what one wine expert called "a little backwater grape." Now the words used about the rise of moscato are "breathtaking," "phenomenal," "insane." Industry watchers say they've never seen anything like it.

Danny Brager, vice president of the alcoholic beverages division at Nielsen, says moscato madness is not just on the coasts, and it's not only in cities it's everywhere.

According to Brager, a Nielsen analysis found moscato sales up 73 percent in the 12 months ending Jan. 7. That's on top of the 100 percent growth from 2010. It is the fastest growing varietal wine in the country.

Brager says every wine supplier is racing to get on this trend.

They're combing the world for more grapes and growing their own. It's no longer only small Italian wineries. Jugs of Barefoot moscato are sold at BJ's Wholesale Club. It's on the menu at Olive Garden.

What's up with that?

Well, it's inexpensive generally $8 to $20 a bottle. That's a good price point in a recession.

It's low in alcohol and has a lightly sweet, fresh flavor with hints of peaches, apricots, pears, orange blossoms and rose petals. And sweet wines are selling big, especially to the under-40 crowd, who grew up imbibing sugary drinks.

Moscato is being called a gateway beverage for new wine drinkers.

Then there's the whole hip-hop, edgy thing: Drink moscato and you'll be cool like rapper Waka Flocka which marketers pick up on (or start), and the whole thing goes round and round. It happened with Cristal champagne, Hennessy cognac and Patron tequila.

But why moscato, once a niche after-dinner wine, nice with fruit desserts? It may remain one of life's mysteries, but as hip-hop artist Ab-Soul sings: When things get hard to swallow / We need a bottle of moscato.

Bonny Wolf is the author of Talking with My Mouth Full and contributing editor of NPR's Kitchen Window.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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