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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hip-hop artists sing about it, a famous housewife sells it and the wine world is abuzz about Moscato, a sweet, lightly fizzy drink that is the biggest thing to hit the wine business since White Zinfandel.
Hip-hop artist Kanye West helped elevate Moscato's profile, serving Saracco Moscato d'Asti at a party in 2005 and giving the brand props in a remix of the song "Make Her Feel Good".
Rapper Lil' Kim and other performers have also sung about the low-alcohol drink, which is not the first beverage to get a boost from hip-hop stars but one of the most accessible, with an average price of less than $10 per bottle.
"Moscato is definitely coming on strong, especially in the urban market," said wine consultant and columnist Lisa Carley.
She added that sweet red wine, still and sparkling, also has become a big seller throughout the middle of the country.
"The rise of Moscato and sweet red wines seems to indicate that Americans are getting more comfortable with wine in general. Because of that, they are drinking what they like as opposed to what they 'should' drink," Carley said.
A year-over-year comparison shows sales of the up-and-coming wine topping $300 million for 2011, more than triple what they were for 2009. The varietal now accounts for around three percent of total table wine sales, up from one percent in 2009, according to information and measurement company Nielsen.
Moscato and other sweet wines are breaking out of their after-dinner niche, but they are often snubbed by "serious" wine drinkers, who tend to favor drier wines.
But many producers are following the money.
Growers are planting Moscato, which is made from a relatively common grape known as Muscat, in California, Chile, Argentina, France and Spain.
Dozens of producers are selling Moscato, including mass-market purveyors like Sutter Home, Gallo and Yellowtail. NeNe Leakes, an outspoken star of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" reality TV show, dubbed her brand "Miss Moscato".
"The last thing that I can remember that shot out of the cork was Pinot Noir after the 'Sideways' movie," said Danny Brager, vice president of Nielsen's beverage and alcohol business.
Even then, he said, the pop-culture inspired growth in Pinot Noir was eclipsed by the rise of Moscato, which beverage watchers call a "gateway" wine.
"Moscato is a good entry-level wine for people that don't typically drink wine. It's sweet and it's not intimidating," said Megan Metcalf, editor of Wine & Spirits Daily. "People who would have drunk White Zinfandel are now drinking Moscato," she said.
While any wine can call itself Moscato, Moscato d'Asti is a protected name and product. Wines that carry the Moscato d'Asti name can only hail from the wine provinces of Asti, Alessandria and Cuneo in northwest Italy.
Brager, who said Moscato sales grew more than 80 percent for the 52 weeks ending November 12, expects growth to moderate as total dollar sales rise.
"It would be hard to say that it can maintain that sort of growth," Brager said.
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; editing by Leslie Gevirtz, Martinne Geller and Patricia Reaney