The Non-Wine Drinker Wine Drinking Series, Part I: Moscato D’Asti

He looked at the flute of Moscato D’Asti with his typical skepticism for any wine. He sipped.

He raised his eyebrows.  Could this be the one?

He took another sip.  “Oh my God…” he enthused.  “I like this!Like, I actually want to drink this!”

He ordered a glass for himself, and we bought a bottle to take home.  This was a double victory for me – not only did I finally find a wine my husband Chris would drink, it was bubbly, so it fits the bill for celebratory wines.  Considering we toasted on our wedding day with him drinking a Sprite, this was a big moment.

Moscato D’Asti is what I call a “gateway” wine.  Sweet, fizzy and crisp, it provides a great introduction to the wonderful world of wine for people like Chris.  I am convinced that there are two approaches to becoming a wine drinker, if you don’t care for the taste right off the bat: either you keep drinking the same wine until you acquire the taste (thank you, chardonnay), or you keep trying out different wines until you find one that you truly enjoy.  If you choose the latter method, Moscato D’Asti is a great starting point.  But what is it? What makes it so tasty and sweet compared to other wines?

Well, much like anything else in this world, sweetness comes from sugar.  Without getting too technical, the fermentation process in winemaking converts the sugar in grapes to alcohol.  The less sugar that is converted, the sweeter the wine tends to be.  Moscato D’Asti goes through an intricate fermentation process to keep the sugar from converting to alcohol: the process begins with a gentle pressing of Moscato Bianco grapes to extract their juices.  The stock from the juices is then stored at 0 degrees Celsius to prevent fermentation from occurring.  When it’s time to ferment the juice, it is stored in an airtight, pressurized tank and heated up to 15 degrees Celsius.  The pressurized tank retains the carbon dioxide that forms during this process, allowing the wine to retain its fizz.  The juice continues to ferment until the sugars have converted enough to put the stock at 5-6% alcohol.  At that point, the yeast in the mixture needs to be made dormant to halt the fermentation process, so the stock is chilled back down to 0.  Once chilled, the juice is filtered again into another pressurized tank to settle.  The filtration removes the dormant yeast, preventing further fermentation.  The very controlled halting of the fermentation process is what makes Moscato D’Asti sweeter than its mass-produced sister, Asti Spumante (now known simply as Asti).

When pairing sweeter wines with foods, you generally do not want to eat something that is sweeter than your wine; if you do so, it will often give your wine more of an acidic taste.  Thankfully, Moscato D’Asti is sweet, but not cloyingly so; its flavor allows it to pair nicely with most desserts, especially fruit-based or berry-based desserts.  A dessert with mascarpone cheese and peaches would be delicious with this wine.  Moscato D’Asti also goes nicely with salads or fluffy, light pastries.

What is the best way to serve Moscato D’Asti so you can enjoy it at its full flavor potential?  First of all, an important general rule to follow with any kind of wine is the sweeter the wine, the colder it is served.  If you had a glass of Moscato D’Asti served at room temperature, the sweetness would taste almost syrupy.  When chilled at 10-12 degrees Celsius, it remains sweet, but takes on a crisper, refreshing feel over your palate.

Moscato D’Asti is in the frizzante style, making it less bubbly than sparkling wines like Asti Spumante or champagne.  Because it is less bubbly, it tends to lose its effervescence sooner, so I recommend drinking it the day you open the bottle.

Where sparkling wines are to be served in a flute, Moscato D’Asti is properly served in a standard white wine glass.  If you ever have Moscato D’Asti at a restaurant, chances are they are going to serve it in a flute – while this is considered incorrect, it’s not going to ruin the flavor or the experience of the wine.  Besides, let’s face it – champagne flutes indicate celebration and fun; if it’s the only fizzy wine you like, why not put it in a flute for a special event?  If someone is going to be a snob about it, chances are, they’ll be a snob simply because you prefer the sweet Moscato D’Asti over a brut champagne.

Now that you are ready to enjoy your first glass of Moscato D’Asti, it’s time to give you a few recommendations:it is important to know when you are searching for a bottle that there are other wines that have Moscato in their names, but they are not Moscato D’Asti, and they will have distinctly different flavors.  The Moscato grape is used for a multitude of rich, dessert wines, like Muscatel from Spain, or a California wine called Essensia, which has a distinct floral flavor.  Moscato D’Asti always is listed as such on the DOCG label, which is located near the lip.  DOCG stands for denominazione di origine controllata (“controlled origin denomination”), and its presence on your bottle verifies that the wine was produced in a specific region of Italy, and meets the defined quality standards and methods for making for that type of wine.

If you are at a restaurant, Moscato D’Asti is located in either the sparkling wine section, or in the dessert wine section (often served with your dessert menu).  However, if you are going to go out and buy a bottle to try, here are three of my favorites:

Michael Chiarlo Nivole is by far my top choice for three reasons: it is a half-bottle, it is inexpensive (you should be able to find it for under $15), and it is a high-quality Moscato.  I buy this brand often, and have yet to come across a bad bottle.  Fortunately, it is also very common – you should be able to find it at your favorite wine cellar; it is also often available at both Total Wine & More and BevMo.

Marenco Scrapona is a little more difficult to find, but it is delicious and worth the purchase if you come across it.  I’ve never seen it at the big-name stores, but found it at a local wine cellar.

Vino Dei Fratelli is also quite good, and seems to be a little easier to find than the Marenco.  I have seen it in Whole Foods, and it is also available at BevMo.  Keep in mind that if you are in an area where it is legal to ship wines, you can find these brands via on-line stores.