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Tidal Wave of Moscato Rises in California

A bumper muscat harvest helped California to a record crop in 2013
© AFP | A bumper muscat harvest helped California to a record crop in 2013
Californian moscato production reaches all-time high in 2013 harvest report while Napa cab fetches record prices.

Close the windows and lay in some sandbags: a tsunami of moscato is about to froth forth from California vineyards.

California had its largest wine grape crop ever in 2013, up 7 percent from the record 2012 harvest, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture's annual preliminary grape crush report, released Monday. Much of that growth came from moscato, with muscat of Alexandria, the most-planted of the three muscat varieties, up a phenomenal 60 percent in a single year.

Yet the muscat tsunami comes at a time when growth in sales of the fruity, sweet wine have started to level off. Analysts Nielsen reported U.S. moscato sales were up 13 percent by volume in 2013 – still impressive compared with other varietals – but below the 33 percent growth of last year and 73 percent in 2011.

"Much of the moscato sales growth was fueled by exports," said Greg Livengood, partner and president of Ciatti grape brokerage. "Expectations are that a lot of that [consumer] demand will transfer over to California. But it feels like demand is leveling off. You're probably not seeing a lot of muscat plantings now. Either this year or next we'll see the maximum supply level."

Napa Prices Reach New Highs

Because of the second record crop in a row, prices across California were down: 5 percent for red grapes and 1 percent for white grapes. This trend wasn't universal, however, as grapes from Napa County were up 4 percent in price and Napa cabernet sauvignon reached an all-time high average of more than $5,400 a ton – although cabernet prices elsewhere in the state were down.

Livengood explained that this year's rise in average Napa cab prices was preordained because some wineries signed long-term contracts with price increases built in during the small-harvest years of 2010 and 2011. However, next year could reverse the trend.

"Today in the bulk market, Napa cab is available," Livengood said. "Two years ago it was very difficult to find Napa cab on the bulk market. Now you can. Based on the availability out there, we expect to see a step back [in price] next year."

The difference in price between Napa County grapes and everything from elsewhere is striking as always. Cabernet franc and petit verdot from Napa County also fetched average prices over $5,000 per ton, and carmenere, lagrein, malbec and marsanne from Napa earned over $4,000. The only grape anywhere outside Napa County to earn an average price higher than $3,000 per ton was pinot noir from Sonoma and Marin County, but even its average of $3,095 per ton was below a host of minor Napa grapes including grenache, petite sirah, tempranillo and zinfandel.

Zinfandel growers outside Napa had a tough year, with prices down 9 percent. Livengood explained that growers that were previously selling their fruit to red zinfandel producers were now selling to white zinfandel makers, and receiving lower prices for the fruit.

One surprising drop in crop came for pinot grigio, which was down 9 percent in production in 2013 even as the sales market stayed strong, with sales up 8 percent according to Nielsen. pinot grigio dropped just behind the combined muscat varieties to become the fourth most produced white wine in California.

"It's possible growers have been putting strain on the (pinot grigio) vines to get the largest crop," Livengood said. "Maybe the vines are taking a little break."

Chardonnay is still king in California, accounting for 16.1 percent of the state's total grape crush, and prices were up 2 percent on average. Cabernet sauvignon is queen, at 11.1 percent, with zinfandel a close second at 10 percent.

Related stories:

Napa: Could 2013 Surpass Last Year's "Near-Perfect" Vintage?

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