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Savoring the Explosive Nectar of Italy : Forget Asti Spumante. Moscato d'Asti Is Vibrant, Invigorating, Occasionally Dangerous

August 22, 1996|MATT KRAMER

That Italian wines are a world of discovery unto themselves is hardly news. Even most Italians are largely unaware of Italy's vast array of offerings. Italians are largely content to drink their local wines and let it go at that.

But Americans are different. We love to go the extra kilometer in search of new delights. One such delight is Moscato d'Asti. As awareness and connoisseurship of Italian wines has increased in the United States--and merchants have begun to travel extensively in Italy in search of new treasures--word of Moscato d'Asti has begun to spread.

The name probably seems familiar. The Moscato Bianco or White Muscat grape variety is extensively grown on the steep hills surrounding the city of Asti in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. In the last century, a Champagne-like foaming version of this sweet white wine became world-famous as Asti Spumante.

But what went by the wayside, at least outside the region of production, was the original wine, properly called Moscato d'Asti. Unlike the more famous spumante or foaming version, Moscato d'Asti is frizzante, lightly bubbling. Where Asti Spumante comes in a Champagne-type bottle, complete with a wired-down knobby cork, Moscato d'Asti is more conventionally bottled. You use a corkscrew to get at the goods.

So why is Moscato d'Asti only now becoming known? At one level it's a matter of scale. Asti Spumante is produced by huge, almost industrial wineries. Moscato d'Asti, in comparison, is what Italians call artiginale: made in tiny quantities by artisan winegrowers.

As someone who lived in Piedmont for a year, I can tell you that Moscato d'Asti is the world's most easily acquired taste. All Moscato d'Asti bottlings are very low in alcohol, usually between 5% and 7% alcohol. They are sweet but so braced by acidity that the only word that comes to mind is "invigorating."

What's more, the quality of today's Moscato d'Asti is superb. Techniques for making the wine have changed, nearly all for the better. Today's wines are impeccably fresh and, unlike Asti Spumante, always vintage-dated. They have pristine visual and taste clarity.

They didn't always, though. I've had the chance to taste a Moscato d'Asti made the way it was a century ago. Gemma Chionetti, the wife of one of Piedmont's finest Dolcetto producers, Quinto Chionetti, makes a tiny amount of Moscato in the old-fashioned way for family use.

The old-fashioned way involves filtering the fermenting juice through long, tubular socks of a coarse, burlap-like fabric, usually woven of hemp fibers. The fermenting wine would be very roughly filtered this way five or seven times, until the winemaker figured that most of the solids and--most important--most of the active yeasts had been removed. Then the wine would be bottled and corked.

After that, the winemaker would pray that the bottles wouldn't explode. Unfiltered yeasts would be feeding on the residual sugar in the wine, adding to the carbon dioxide already in the quickly bottled wine. If the glass and cork held, all the better; the Moscato would be that much more frizzante. If not, you didn't want to be standing anywhere near. In the old days, cellar workers wore stiff leather chest protectors and fencing masks against flying shards of glass.

I had heard that Chionetti made a Moscato in the old way. "Oh, I make maybe 120 bottles a year," she said when I visited. By that time, she had just a dozen bottles remaining. "At least I think that's what there," she said, laughing. "I haven't been down to the cellar to see if anything is broken."

She returned with three bottles carefully held upright so as not to disturb the heavy sediment. "You don't want to shake it too much," she said. She was not laughing when she said that.

She pulled the cork and it was a glorious--yet still familiar--taste of the past. Today's best Moscato d'Asti bottlings had a lot in common with Chionetti's version: the freshness, the vibrancy, the incisive flavors.

There was one difference, though: texture. Her Moscato was thick on the tongue, denser than any other Moscato I'd tasted before or since. It was the most dramatic demonstration of the effects of filtering--or rather, not filtering--that I've experienced. The glycerin richness of the texture is absent in today's necessarily more finely filtered renditions.

She offered me two bottles to take home that evening. "How far away do you live?" she inquired.

"Not far," I replied, "Maybe 30 minutes."

"Then it's OK," she said. "The bottles should make it there safely. Because once they warm up--well, you never know. Anyway, you'd better drink them fast."

I drove like, well, an Italian, and made it home in record time. I carried the two bottles into the house as if they were gelignite.

The next day, since they hadn't exploded in the night, my wife and I drank them both. Who'd want to take the chance of losing even an ounce of such nectar?

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