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September 19, 2019

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Moscato d’Asti a friend to sweet and savory dishes

HONEY is humankind’s original sweet. Prehistoric hominids searched far and wide for sources of wild honey. Like modern man, they had a sweet tooth. The earliest documented human-made candy or confectionery dates back to 2,000 BC when the Egyptians mixed fruits, nuts and honey. Ancient civilizations in China had some of the most varied assortments of honey-sweetened foods, integrating diverse ingredients like sesame seeds, ginger and licorice.

In honor of the original sweet, this week I’ll introduce a wine that not only pairs beautifully with many types of sweets but also offers sensations of honey. It’s an Italian sparkling wine not named Prosecco.

Moscato d’Asti

In the world of wines, Moscato d’Asti is best described as a casual sweet elegance. Made in and around the hilltop town of Asti in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, Moscato d’Asti wines are among the most affordable and affable premium wines. These sweet and gently effervescent wines are made from the ancient Moscato Bianco variety and offer lovely aromas, fresh flavors of white and blossoms, tropical fruits, peaches, nectarines and honey.

Two millenniums ago, Moscato wines were prized by the Roman upper classes and the wine retained its popularity through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. About two centuries ago, lightly effervescent Moscato wines became popular with Piedmont winemakers, but they were rarely sold to consumers. Winemakers and workmen at vineyards consumed the wines because they were low in alcohol and thirst quenching.

The commercial success of Moscato d’Asti wines began at the end of the 19th century when people in northern Italy developed a taste for these fragrant light sparklers. During the heady days of pre-war Europe, fashionable ladies of Europe would be seen with a glass of Moscato d’Asti in hand. Gourmets of both sexes often enjoyed the Asti fizz as a digestif, especially after hours-long, multi-course Piedmont feasts.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the wines of Moscato d’Asti have become one of the most popular Italian wines with a rapidly growing number of admirers in China.

Moscato d’Asti wines are only slightly fizzy, or frizzante as the Italian refer to them. The wines are also quite low in alcohol with about 5.5 to 6 ABV because winemakers halt the fermentation process early. Unlike traditional method sparklers like Champagne, there is no second fermentation in the bottle, instead the wines are made in a modified version of the Charmat method. Typical Moscato d’Asti wines offer captivating nectar like sweetness that’s never cloying as it is balanced by pronounced and lively acidity. All these qualities make them fine companions to an amazing wide variety of different foods, from savory to sweet.

Among the sweets that take on new levels of delectability when accompanied by a glass of Moscato d’Asti are cookies, cakes, sweet rolls, fruit tarts and other baked delights. The wine is also a natural with dried and stewed fruit and nuts.

I’ve long bemoaned the wine-killing qualities of fresh fruit when served before, during or after a meal. The simple truth is that the simple sugars in fruits make most wines unpalatably sour. This is not the case with Moscato d’Asti as the high level of residual sugar in the wine is not overwhelmed by the sweetness of the fruit. Reciprocally, the low alcohol doesn’t overwhelm the natural flavors of the fruit. In a testament to the versatility of this wine, sweets and fresh fruits aren’t the exclusive pairing domain of the wine.

Savory snacks and dishes also work well with Moscato d’Asti wines. In Italy, the wines are commonly enjoyed with plates of salami, ham and other cold cuts and cheeses. The light bubbles and freshness of the wines cut through the greasiness of the meats while also facilitating digestion. This is also the case when Moscato d’Asti meets Chinese savory snacks like duck tongue, dried beef and pork jerky, sausages and street side BBQ skewers.

There also exists a segment of the Moscato d’Asti wine loving community that loves the wines with raw and cooked oysters and other mollusks.

Finally, the semi-sparkler is a lovely companion to spicy Chinese, Thai and Korean dishes, as the sweet and fresh qualities of the wine assuages burning on the palate. I recently enjoyed a wonderful bottle of L’Armangia Moscato d’Asti Canelli with my beloved mala hotpot, the combination was exquisite.

As with many other sparkling Italian wines, in Moscato d’Asti there exists a wide range of quality levels. Therefore, it behooves consumers to pick wines from top producers.

Some of the best available in Shanghai are Baraida, Araldica, Batasiolo, Michel Chiarlo, La Spinetta, Prunotto and Bera. Moscato d’Asti wines don’t age particularly well so I suggest only purchasing wines from recent vintages.

Some final advice to optimize your Moscato d’Asti drinking experience. Be sure to serve the wines well-chilled, or about 6-8 Celsius and use a Sauvignon Blanc or a similar style white wine glass.

While it’s fashionable to serve Moscato d’Asti and other sparkling wines in flute-shaped glasses, to fully appreciate the lovely aromas and texture of Moscato d’Asti wines, a white wine glass with a more amble bowl is preferable. The additional girth better allows the seductive aromas of the wine to be savored.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Yishe-Wine (WeChat official account)
L’Armangia Canelli Moscato d’Asti DOCG
Isola Italian Bar and Grill, IFC Mall, 8 Century Ave, 5012-1277
Bradia Moscato d’Asti DOCG (website)
Michel Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti DOCG
La Spinetta Bricco Qualia Moscato d’Asti DOCG
Prunotto Moscato d’Asti DOCG

Varieties: The two most planted varieties in Asti are Moscato and Barbera.

Key term: ABV is the acronym for alcohol by volume that’s the measure of alcohol/ethanol content in a wine.


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