Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt
A surefire hit: sweet, sparkling moscato d'Asti
You may or may not find muscat (also known as moscato, moscatel, moscadello, muskateller and muscadel) included on lists of the world's greatest wine grapes. But some muscats, at least, are proven crowd-pleasers.
Muscat canelli, usually done in an off-dry, fruity style, is a very popular tasting-room wine right here in Washington and all down the coast. Sweet, fortified dessert wines are made from muscat in many parts of the world, laden with high-octane flavors of citrus rind and ginger, mandarin orange, apricot and peach.
Sparkling muscat is the 'sleeper' in this family. It is far lighter and less syrupy-sweet than the fortified dessert wines. And despite its significant sugar content, it is more lively and elegant than the off-dry muscat table wines. Bubbly muscat perfectly showcases the distinctive fruit and fragrance of the grape, and one Italian version in particular, the semi-sparkling (frizzante) moscato d'Asti, belongs at the top of your list of sure-fire party-starters.
You have probably run across some of the more widely available Italian sparkling wines (vini spumanti) already. According to "The Wine Bible" (Workman Press), Italy produces more sparkling wines from more different grapes than any other country in the world. This broad category is best known for Asti spumante, made in the northwest (Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, Fontanafredda and Gancia are popular producers), and Prosecco, the most popular sparkling wine in Italy's northeast.
Prosecco wines can be quite delicious, especially when blended with the fresh juice of white peaches to make the Venetian aperitif known as the Bellini. Yet I find them less interesting than the moscato-based sparklers. No need to blend peach juice in with those wines; they burst from the bottle packed with peachy flavors.
Sweet sparkling wines are a bit out of fashion, at least in this country, but somebody is drinking a whole lot of them over in Italy. The Asti wine appellation makes more wines than any other in Italy — roughly 17 million gallons a year. Frizzante wines such as moscato d'Asti, note the authors of "Vino Italiano — The Regional Wines of Italy" (Potter Press) provide a direct link to the winemaking traditions of centuries past.
Winemaking was a lot less fussy then. Ripe grapes were tossed into open-topped wooden vats and left to ferment naturally. Fermentations sometimes stopped during the winter cold and re-started themselves in the spring, creating naturally fizzy wines. When bottled, they would frequently explode as fermentations continued bubbling along. These were wines bound for the supper table, not the cellar.
Today's moscato d'Asti wines are a lot safer, but still require some caution when being opened. Some carry a warning stating that the wine must be stored upright, not on its side. And whereas spumante is finished with a wire cage restraining the cork, same as champagne and other sparkling wines, these frizzante wines have a cork only.
When opening the wine, the cork is not twisted off, but rather extracted with a corkscrew. Although the carbonation is at a much gentler pressure than standard bubbly, it still has enough oomph to push the cork out with a bit of force. Safety goggles may not be mandatory, but careful attention is!
Moscato d'Asti wines are among the lowest in alcohol made anywhere in the world, no more than 5.5 percent by law. Despite their low alcohol (and consequently higher sugar content), the sweetness in these wines is not sugary or cloying. The region's high-altitude vineyards ensure that the grapes ripen with plenty of acidity, which keeps the wines lively.
The appealing charm and appeal of moscato d'Asti bursts forth in the wonderfully fresh fruit scents and flavors. Typically you will find plenty of the muscat grape's signature orange and peach aromas, but there is much more. Citrus, kiwi, pink grapefruit, apricot and tangerine are often there, gently supported by the tongue-tickling bubbles and a lingering, spicy finish.
These wines are good at either end of a meal. They should be chilled down to refrigerator temperature, but I'd leave them out of ice. If you get them too cold, the aromas close down. Serve them in tall thin flutes if you wish, but simple tumblers or ordinary white-wine glasses work just as well. You can pour them over fresh peaches or strawberries, or sip them with a light dessert such as panettone. Just stay away from anything too sweet, or it will overwhelm them.
You will want to drink moscato d'Asti while it is young and fresh — wines from 2002 are perfect. Many are available in half-bottles, and given the quality, prices are reasonable, in the $10 to $15 range. I've listed some recommended producers, but virtually any wine that carries the moscato d'Asti DOCG appellation will provide pleasure.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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