Here’s an easy way to pick up a few bucks at your next wine tasting or dinner: Bet your friends that they can’t name the world’s leader in sparkling-wine production. They’ll probably say France'Champagne being synonymous with sparkling wine. In fact though, Italy makes more sparkling wines from more grape varieties than any other country.
Many of us think of Asti Spumante as nothing more than a cheap, sweet fizzy wine. When I see a bottle of Asti Spumante, grandmothers come to mind. Maybe that’s because, before she passed away, my ex-wife’s grandma demanded to have a bottle of Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante on the table each and every Thanksgiving.
I was reflecting on the wines of Asti, Italy, this week after having an interesting conversation about those wines with Snowbasin’s executive chef Elio Scanu (see Dining, p. 34), himself a native of Asti. It may not be Italy’s most prestigious winemaking locale, but wines from Asti can be very good bargains. Most of them available in our state sell for about $15 or less.
It might be obvious, but you can easily recognize wines from Asti because they all have “d’Asti” (of Asti) on the label. Moscato d’Asti, Barbera d’Asti, Barolo d’Asti'all come from Asti. You can find quaffable Barbera d’Asti here, namely Pico Maccario Barbera d’Asti ($12.95) and Michelle Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti ($13.95). I especially like the latter for its bone-dry appeal and velvety texture.
Aside from Spumante, the other Asti wine you can enjoy here is Asti’s most respected: Moscato d’Asti. The state stores carry Moscato d’Asti from a number of producers'including Bartenura, Batasiolo, Marenco and Saracco'and the wines run $10-$15.
If you’ve never tried Moscato d’Asti, it’s high time you did. It’s a delightful white aperitif wine that also matches surprisingly well with many foods. Unlike Asti Spumante, which is a full-blown sparkling wine (“spumante” means “foamâ€), Moscato d’Asti is fizzy (“frizzanteâ€) and effervescent, but not fully sparkling. It’s made from Muscat grapes and is very fruity, somewhat sweet, very delicate and low in alcohol (5 percent to 7 percent), which is another reason to serve it as an aperitif wine. I’ve not had a bad experience with any of the Moscato d’Astis available here in Utah, but I’m particularly fond of Paolo Saracco Moscato d’Asti. This is a lovely, light wine redolent of pears, peaches and lychees. I’d serve it before dinner with chevre or alongside a dessert of sabayon and berries.
Whereas Moscato d’Asti is made in very small batches using carefully selected grapes by small-scale producers, Asti Spumante is made in huge vats or tanks by the Charmat method. The wine is fermented in tanks, not in the bottle like Champagne (“mÃ©thode champenoiseâ€). Vintage is unimportant and rarely appears on bottles of Asti Spumante, since it’s shipped almost as soon as it’s bottled and is meant to be consumed quickly. Don’t even think about aging Asti in your cellar.
The names Martini & Rossi are virtually synonymous with Asti Spumante, and that’s the brand you’ll find here in Zion. At $14.95, I think it’s overpriced but this is one of the few sparkling wines I’d recommend with dessert. It pairs nicely with pastries, cakes and even ice cream.
More interesting to me is Ballatore Rosso Spumante ($9.95) from California. Rosso is red Spumante, typically made from Barbera or Nebbiolo grapes. It’s a sparkling wine like Asti Spumante, but has a rich ruby color. The Ballatore Rosso Spumante is surprisingly well-balanced, crisp and brimming with blackberry aromas and raspberries on the tongue. Pull out a few bottles at your first spring barbecue. This wine is perfect with hot Italian sausages off the grill.