Now, before I jump in to the main event, Riesling vs Moscato, I need anyone who is here to say, “not all Riesling is sweet, not all Moscato is sweet” to chill out. I know, I’m a mother flower sommelier. I’ll get to that. But this post is for wine newbies who are stepping into the world of wine.
“Logic & Riesling” T-shirt
Riesling and Moscato have long been the best sweet wines for beginners, and where most people start their wine journey. Hell, Riesling or Moscato is way better starting point than the Beringer White Zinfandel I started with. I know most of you with your shiny Somm pins were sneaking Carlo Rossi into your momma’s basement, don’t even front. Okay, glad we got that out of the way.
Which Wine is Sweeter, Riesling or Moscato?
Generally speaking, in terms of every day drinking wines that you’ll find in your grocery store, Moscato will be sweeter than Riesling. There’s a few tricks to be sure (see below), but if you’re debating between a bottle of Riesling vs Moscato, and sweetness is what you’re after, then grab a bottle of Moscato.
Aromas and Flavors of Riesling vs Moscato
What does Riesling smell like? What does Moscato smell like?
Riesling is moderately aromatic versus Moscato which is very aromatic. You’ll get similar fruit profiles from both. You’ll smell a lot of citrus fruits like lemon and lime and stone fruits like nectarine from Riesling vs Moscato which smells more like orange blossoms, peach, and tropical fruit. Have you ever noticed no one ever uses the word grapes to describe wine? Well with Moscato, one of the descriptors you’ll often here is grapey! Speaking of odd smells, don’t be surprised if you smell petrol in Riesling. Both Riesling and Moscato can be described as floral wines with smells of rose, blossoms, and white flowers.
What does Riesling taste like? What does Moscato taste like?
The biggest difference comes on the palate. Riesling has very high acidity which balances out the sweetness quite well. Even when Riesling and Moscato have the same residual sugar, Riesling will seem less sweet because of the acidity. Another difference is that because Riesling usually has a bit more alcohol, it will feel slightly heavier on the palate.
Moscato is quite light despite the sugar, even Muscats that are dry still feel quite light on the palate. Sweet Moscato tastes like peach juice versus sweet Riesling will remind you more of lemonade. These beautiful and inviting aromas and flavors make them the best wines for beginners. They’ll be familiar and a gateway to drier styles as your palate adapts.
Riesling has ageing potential, Moscato does not
Another difference between Riesling and Moscato is that proper Rieslings, sweet and dry, can age for years and years. It’s the acidity combined with the sweetness that gives it longevity. That being said, Moscatos do not age well, especially not fizzy versions like Moscato d’Asti. I do want to differentiate between Moscato and Muscat though, because Muscats from the Old World can age.
What is the difference between Moscato and Muscat?
Moscato is the Italian name for the Muscat grape. It’s been adapted in the United States as well. While Moscato and Muscat are the same, or at the very least in the same family, Moscato usually will indicate to you that it’s a sweeter style of Muscat. Here in Crete, our Muscat wines are highly aromatic like Moscato but fermented bone dry and can hit alcohol levels of up to 14.5%! It is my assumption that if a winemaker, anywhere in the world, wanted to communicate to their customers that the wine is sweet, they would opt for Moscato vs Muscat on the label. There are exceptions, of course. Sweet dessert Muscats have existed for millennia. (Skip down to the Origins of Muscat for more info).
What Makes Wine Sweet?
Wine gets its sweetness from the grapes. That may seem logical, but if it was as simple as that than all wines would be sweet since all wine comes from grapes. When grapes are ripe, they have a fair amount of sugar. The sugar is essential to the fermentation process; yeast eats sugar and creates alcohol. However, a wine that has residual sugar, or sugar leftover after fermentation will be sweet. The more residual sugar, the sweeter it will be.
If the intention is to make a sweet wine, the sugar levels need to be high at the start of the fermentation process. Think of alcohol on one side of a sea-saw and sugar on the other. The higher the alcohol goes; the drier the wine will be. The lower the alcohol, the sweeter it will be. Note: In wine speak, dry is the opposite of sweet, more on that later.
What Does a Winemaker Do to Make a Sweet Wine?
There a few ways a winemaker can make a sweet wine. The concept is the same, concentrate the sugars so there’s more sugar leftover after fermentation
- Late Harvest: The farmers can harvest the grapes later in the season. The longer a grape stays on the vine, the sweeter it will be, but the less acid the grape with retain. Think of the sea-saw analogy here again.
- Sundried Grapes/Passito/Liasto: The winemakers can also dry the grapes in the sun to concentrate the sugars. Essentially making wine from raisins. This is ancient method of making sweet wines
- Noble Rot: Now, it seems counterintuitive to make wine from rotten grapes, but this is a special kind of fungus called botrytis that is revered for the exquisite wines of Sauternes and in Hungary for Tokaj wines.
- Ice Wine: Frozen grapes have a higher concentration of sugar.
- Stopping Fermentation: This is how most sweet Riesling and Moscato are made. The winemaker stops the fermentation at around 6-8% alcohol and the sugar stays unfermented resulting in a sweet wine.
Wine Sweetness Scale
From driest to sweetest: Dry, Off-Dry, Semi-Sweet, Sweet. Because wine is international, you should also know that in the French, Italian, and German terms as well.
How to Tell a Wine is Sweet from the Label
There are a few terms and clues to look for on a wine label to tell if the wine is sweet. In addition to the wine terms above, the biggest clue to whether or not a wine will be sweet is the alcohol level, or ABV. The lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine will be. Most sweet Rieslings are around 7-9% alcohol but dry Rielsings are 11-13% ABV. Sweet Moscatos range from 5-8% ABV while dry Moscato, or dry Muscat can reach up to 14% alcohol. With German Rieslings, the wine labels can be very confusing. Remember that Trocken means dry and double check the alcohol level.
Origins of Riesling
Riesling hails from Germany. It’s their pride and joy grape. Riesling dates back to March 13, 1435. Does that seem oddly specific? It is. Every year, March 13th is celebrated as Riesling’s Birthday. It marks the first time the sale of Riesling vines was documented. As you know, Riesling grows all over the world now. You’ll find dry styles, off dry styles, sparkling Riesling, and of course, sweet styles. Riesling does best in cold to cool climates like Germany, Alsace, Washington State, and New York’s Finger Lakes.
Origins of Moscato
If you though Riesling was old, you’ll need to sit down when you hear about Moscato, or better to say Muscat when referring to its origin. Muscat was one of the first vitis vinifera grapes, like ever. I call Muscat the Eve of grapes as it is likely that all vitis vinifera grapes derive from ‘her’. Muscat goes back to the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks but could be even older. And there isn’t just one Muscat, there are 200+ grapes that are members of the Muscat family. Most of the Muscat or Moscato you’ll come across will be from Muscat Blanc.
Riesling vs Moscato Food Pairing
Where are my spicy food lovers? Sweeter Rieslings and Moscatos pair spectacularly with spicy food. Why? Because sweetness calms down spice. Alcohol also inflames spice, and since these sweet styles are low in alcohol, it makes an even more perfect match with spicy food. Try a Moscato with spicy Mexican food, Indian food, or Thai cuisine. Riesling as the added benefit of acidity so is great with fatty/greasy foods like ham, pork, and fried foods. Off-dry styles of either can pair with traditional white wine pairing foods like poultry, fish, and vegetables as well.
Another rule of thumb is that the wine should always be sweeter than the food, so both Riesling and Moscato are great with any honey glazes, fruit toppings, or sweet and sour sauces. Fruit salads, fruit tarts, and desserts that aren’t too sweet will work with these wines as well. Of course, you can enjoy both on their own without food on the back porch or by the pool.
I want to emphasize that it’s okay to like sweet wines. Wine is the not the be all and end all of sophistication so don’t let anyone bully you about what you like. There is a great vast world of wine. If you’re interested in exploring, Riesling and Moscato are great sweet wines for beginners. Think of it this way, no one starts drinking their coffee black. Usually you start out with cream and 3 sugars and slowly phase it out. Or you don’t! And that’s okay.
My biggest gripe with these types of sweet wine are unsustainable viticultural practice by the huge wine conglomerates that produce them. When possible, try to purchase wines from small producers. I hope I’ve provided enough information to help you decide Riesling vs Moscato though you’ll see that both can be enjoyable. So, tell me, what’s your favorite?
Riesling vs Moscato: Knock Out Punch
Now, if this was a wine battle between Riesling and Moscato and the only criteria was frequency in song lyrics, Moscato would win in a KO. There are approximately 84 songs that mention Moscato and 21 that mention Riesling. However, the quality of songs featuring Riesling is much higher. Feel free to write your favorite lyrics about Riesling or Moscato in the comments.
Frequently Asked Questions about Riesling vs Moscato
What is better, Riesling vs Moscato?
Neither grape variety between Riesling and Moscato is better than the other. This comes down to how it’s grown and how it’s produced. If either of these grapes are mass-produced, then they won’t be great. That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy them.
There are excellent Rieslings made in Germany and France that can age for years and are some of the most valued wine in the world. Moscato is loved for it’s light and floral aromatics which disappear as the wine ages, so it isn’t recommended to age.
All the being said, it comes down to personal choice. If you like Moscato more than Riesling than that’s the one that’s better for you.
What wine is comparable to Moscato?
Wines that are comparable to Moscato are, of course, sweet styles of Riesling, Gewurztraminer. If you like the aromatics of Moscato, try a Torrontes from Argentina.
Is Riesling wine sweet or dry?
Riesling is made in both sweet and dry styles. To tell if a Riesling is sweet or dry, check the alcohol level. The higher the alcohol, the drier it will be. Another way to tell if Riesling is sweet or dry is to look for the word Trocken on a German Riesling wine label. Usually there is some indication from the winery on whether the Riesling is sweet or dry. When all else fails, ask the wine shop owner.
What wine is similar to Riesling?
Wines that are similar to sweet styles of Riesling are Moscato, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. Wines that are similar to dry Riesling are Sauvignon Blanc, Assyrtiko, and Chenin Blanc.
Is Rose sweeter than Moscato?
Whether a rose will be sweeter than Moscato will depend on how the winemaker chooses to make it. A lot of rose is bone dry just as a lot of Moscato (or Muscat) is dry as well. Look for clues on the label that will tell you if the wine is sweet or dry.
What is a good sweet wine for beginners?
Sweet wines for beginners are a way to ease into the wine world. Both Riesling and Moscato are made in sweet styles. You could also try something light and fruity like a Pinot Grigio, Vihno Verde, or Torrontes. Those these last 3 wines aren’t very sweet, they have a lot of fruit characteristics that might trick your brain into detecting sweetness.
Most people when they begin their wine journey will start with sweet wines. Usually, as the palate evolves, a wine lover will begin to gravitate to drier styles. If you’re new to wine, a sweet wine might be a good start. Try to find wines that are made properly, that aren’t produced by the millions, so that your first wines are quality wines.