(All the photos are provided by Consorzio Tutela Asti DOCG)
When most wine-drinkers think of Piedmont, they think of red wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, Ruché and Barbera d’Asti. However, this region -- specifically the area around the city of Asti -- is the home of wonderful Italian sparkling wines made with the local, aromatic white grape Moscato. In fact, Asti is the first region in Italy to produce commercial sparkling wines, over 150 years ago.
Italian Sparkling Wines of Asti
There are three different styles of sparkling DOCG wines made in this area. All three have the word “Asti” in their names: Moscato d’Asti, Asti Dolce and Asti Secco. This makes it simpler to remember where they are from: Asti, in the Piedmont region of Italy. The sparkling wine production zone is just south of the city of Asti. The area is an easy drive (or train journey) from the major Italian cities of Torino or Milano, through charmingly rural, hilly countryside. Though it may be simple to get there, it can be complicated to differentiate the three wines without specific knowledge of each one. And most people outside of Italy are not familiar with all three of these lovely wines.
With more and more wine drinkers enjoying sparkling wines in recent years there has been an increase in production of all types of fizz. Traditionally, Italian sparkling wines such as Prosecco and the Asti sparklers were sweet wines, and the Italians have always cherished these wines. Even though the times are changing and wine-drinkers are trending toward drier sparkling wines, it is still an Italian tradition to celebrate the holidays with sweet sparkling wines.
However, the producers of Asti sparkling wines have been taking note of the trends, and they recently began to produce more dry Asti wines. Producers have, in fact, worked on making dry Asti wines on and off for 100 years, basically for their own consumption. But the current skyrocketing demand for sparkling wines over the past decade inspired them to craft a commercially viable metodo classico [classic method] wine that is re-fermented in the bottle, like Champagne. It was quite a challenge for the winemakers to create a dry metodo classico wine that would remain light and fresh, from the aromatic Moscato grape required in this region. The other two Asti sparklers, Moscato d’Asti and Asti Dolce are made in the Martinotti method (also known as the “bulk” or “Charmat” method).
The Three Wines
Firstly, worldwide, Moscato d’Asti is the most well-known of the sparkling wines of Asti. In fact, in recent years Moscato d’Asti has become so well appreciated around the globe that many people simply ask for “Moscato” when they order a glass. (This has, however, led to a lot of lesser-quality, knock-off wines that are called “moscato” so it’s important to be sure the wine you’re ordering is from Italy and its label contains the words “Moscato d’Asti DOCG .)
Secondly, the sparkling wine known locally as “Asti” is technically called “Asti Dolce”. Both Moscato d’Asti and Asti Dolce have been recognized in Italy for many decades, receiving their DOC status in 1967, and DOCG status in 1993. The initials DOC stand for Denominazione di Origine Controllata [controlled denomination of origin]; the initials of the highest category, DOCG, stand for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, [controlled and guaranteed denomination of origin].
Thirdly, Asti Secco is the latest of these white, Moscato-based sparkling wines to achieve DOCG status. The first bottles of Asti Secco DOCG were released only very recently, in 2017, by a few producers; this category is expected to grow rapidly due to worldwide demand for drier sparkling wines.
The differences between the Asti wines can be quite confusing, especially since all three wines are DOCG. And they are all made with the same grape, moscato bianco – or moscatello as it is known locally. In English and French the grape is known as muscat or muscat blanc a petits grains; sometimes it is called Muscat Canelli because Canelli is the Piedmont town where the first commercial Italian sparkling was produced. This was in 1865, at the Gancia company. As a young man, Carlo Gancia had gone to Reims in the Champagne region of France, to study winemaking for a couple years. He returned in 1850, and began experimenting with making the first Italian sparkling, or “spumante Italiano” as he called it.
At the time, Gancia made wine in the traditional champagne-style method, now known as metodo classico in Italian (méthode traditionelle in French). But after 1895, when the Italian scientist Federico Martinotti invented the autoclave, a pressurize tank for the final fermention and preservation sparkling wine, Gancia began using that method. It allows the wine to be re-fermented in bulk and preserved – fizzy and chilled -- until it is ready to be bottled and released on the market. Thus sparkling wines can be bottled the course of the year, while retaining their fresh aromas and flavors.
This method is also called “bulk” or “Charmat” (after Frenchman Eugene Charmat who adopted its use early in the 20th century) and is looked down upon by the many sparkling winemakers as indicative of cheap wines. And certainly there are cheap wines made this way. However, this method has proven to be the optimal way to handle sparkling wines made from certain grapes with more delicate aromas and flavors, like glera (for Prosecco) or moscato (for Moscato d’Asti and Asti Dolce). These DOCG wines are higher quality to begin with, and they remain that way through secondary fermentation, preservation and bottling.
Sparkling Asti Wines Today
Briefly, Moscato d’Asti is a wonderfully aromatic, lightly sparkling, lightly sweet wine that is also very low in alcohol, 5.5%. It is frizzante, or lightly sparkling, which means not more than 2.5 atmospheres (or bars of pressure). Because of its low alcohol, gentle sparkle, floral aromas and fruitiness, Moscato d’Asti is an attractive wine to sip as an aperitif; it is currently very fashionable wine at weekend brunches and other lighthearted gatherings.
“Asti” or “Asti Dolce” (which means “Sweet Asti”) is a wine that is traditionally somewhat drier and somewhat higher in alcohol than Moscato d’Asti. But “Asti” is still comparatively sweet. and comparatively lower in alcohol than most table wines at around 7%. It is a spumante wine, which means that it is at least 3 atmospheres, but it tends to be not much more.
As an aside, the name “Asti Spumante” has caused this wine a great deal of trouble in the US. In the mid-20th century, the well-known Italian company Martini & Rossi began to promote their “Asti Spumante” wine heavily in the US, especially for the December holidays. They advertised it with an extremely catchy jingle and the product did very well in the market. Unfortunately, it was not a top quality product; it should be noted that this was before the current, more rigorous regulations were put into place, and the original wine was not DOCG.
But the lasting result was that, for many people in the US, the words “Asti Spumante” indicate a cheap, sweet wine. The Italian producers of Asti Spumante have worked hard for the past few decades to overcome this perception. In addition to the new regulations, they began to publicly call their wines “Asti” and leave off the word “spumante.” This helped somewhat. But the improved Asti wines have never reached their full potential in this market. The trend toward drier wines hasn’t helped, either.
Now, winemakers in this region have begun to produce Asti Secco (“Dry Asti”), with alcohol and residual sugar (sweetness) levels that they say are comparable to dry versions of other sparkling wines such as Champagne or Prosecco. Certainly, Asti Secco is produced with great care, and the finished wine has 5 to 6 atmospheres, which is comparable to Champagne. The flavors and aromas are quite good. However, the residual sugar level for this DOCG wine can be up to 17 grams per liter. In general, brut sparkling wines can contain up to 12 grams per liter – nearly one-third less. And in Champagne, the actual level for many brut wines has been even lower in recent years. The residual sugar level in Asti Secco is apparently under discussion at present, in the region.
Asti Secco is a new and interesting wine in the lineup of Asti sparkling wines. Moscato d’Asti remains extremely popular. Asti Dolce is not that well known or appreciated outside of Italy – at least in the US, which is a huge market for Italian wines. Perhaps each country will develop its favorite? In any case, it’s clear that Asti wines will continue to evolve both in Italian production and in popularity around the globe.
（NOTE FOR TRANSLATOR: in order to avoid saying “sparkling wine” so many times, I have sometimes used English synonyms from the US and UK such as “sparkler” and “fizz”.）
Published in ISSUE 105 on Fine Wine and Liquor
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