I have a new favourite sparkling wine style and as a bonus it is also adding sparkle to my culinary creations. I’m talking about the wines from Asti DOCG.
These Italian wines are probably better known as Asti Spumante. I bet you don’t sip them as often as you should. The term “Asti Spumante” can in itself be misleading, and as a result you may underestimate these sparkling wines.
Asti is an incredible wine. I don’t just mean the taste. Its history and inheritance; the care taken in creating it and its beautiful homeland make this such an interesting wine.
I visited Piedmont in northern Italy to meet winemakers and hear from people who know and love it best.
Some background to Asti DOCG and praise from an expert
The Asti wine region is classed as DOCG, the top ranking, which enshrines the highest winemaking quality in Italy.
The landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage site, not least because of the human shaping of the land and vineyards across many generations of winegrowing and winemaking traditions.
In the grand Castello Gancia Canelli, I listened to wine expert and writer Walter Speller. The castle is at the very heart of where the Asti sparkling wine tradition began in the mid-1800s.
Speller said: “If you want featherlight flavours and sensations dancing over your palate then this is the wine for you.
“The hillsides, the history, the winemaking, the people. They all make this wine the amazing thing that it is.
“Now the landscape is recognised by UNESCO it means that the heritage is safeguarded for generations to come.
“The French have terroir, but they exclude the activity of men and women and the impact they have on the wines. In Italy the terroir includes much more; it is about tradition, culture, vines, places, history, people.
“The splendour, the beauty of this place has a direct impact on the style of wine which is unique.”
Such words are very enthusing and I’ve been enjoying Asti wines since I came back from my trip. Yes, they can be sweet, but trust me on this.
Here’s a techie bit about Asti DOCG wines
Piedmont is at the foot of the Alps, but still close to the sea. The land is an ancient seabed and is a mix of sand and marl, and is rich in limestone. The slopes are steep and most of the harvesting has to be done by hand.
The moscato bianco grape is at the heart of Asti sparkling wines. The grape – an ancient Mediterranean variety – is aromatic and the wines can show notes of pear, peach, apricot, hints of honey, sweet spices, acacia and even sage. It is known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains outside Italy.
The harvested grapes are pressed and the grape must is then chilled and stored in a tank. The tank temperature is raised when a new wine is required. This kickstarts a fermentation in which yeasts convert the grape sugars into alcohol.
The temperature is lowered when the desired alcohol level is reached and this stops the fermentation. As the yeast’s alcohol conversion is stopped in its tracks, natural grape sugars remain in the wine. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fermentation and it dissolves into the wine.
What do we find in a bottle of Asti DOCG wine
When we open a bottle of Asti, bubbles flicker and flirt as the carbon dioxide is released. The wine is sweet with low alcohol and retains the beautiful aromatics of the grape.
The aromas, the freshness, vibrancy and acidity offset the sweetness, creating a wine which is refreshingly moreish.
As the wines are classified as DOCG, every bottle is controlled and guaranteed, and each one is traceable from the vineyard to the consumer.
We’re more used to seeing Asti (spumante) wines on our supermarket shelves with a minimum alcohol content of around 6 to 9.5% abv. The word “spumante” indicates these wines are fully sparkling.
The Moscato d’ASTI DOCG style is created from better quality grapes. The wine should be no more than 6.5% abv. Moscato d’ASTI isn’t as fully sparking, and it teases with a gentle frothiness. A new ASTI Secco DOCG has an abv of around 11%. This style isn’t yet readily available in the UK.
Here’s a handful of Asti DOCG wines you can try
Notice the price of this small selection of supermarket wines below, and reflect on the skills, the countryside and the care of the people who make it.
Speller himself said that the wines “are too cheap, for that level of quality, for all the work involved”.
If pretty bottles float your boat, then Asti Spumante NV (£9, 7% abv) from Marks & Spencer is a good option. It is soft and seductive with crushed grape, wild flower and citrus zest characters.
Tesco has just launched a new Asti Spumante (£5.75, 7% abv) Over in Asda there’s Arione Asti (RRP £7, 7.5% abv) which is a delightfully pretty wine to sip, full of peach, and apricot. Also at Asda is Martini Asti (£7, 7.5% abv) which again displays the signature fruity, floral notes of this classic style of wine.
A High Five to some Asti DOCG producers I met
I’ll continue to update this list of producers’ wines:
Food and Asti DOCG wines
I spent a hugely fun morning at the International Culinary Institute for Foreigners, which is based at the historic Castle of Costigliole d’Asti.
Our “team” created fresh tagliatelle with rabbit ragout (under the guidance of chef Franco). I poured a good dash of Asti into rabbit mince, diced carrots, celery and onions which had been sautéed with a little olive oil and flecks of thyme.
The reduced wine added a sweet, delicious note to the base sauce.
I just loved the flavours and if I have Asti in the fridge (and why not at those prices?) Now I’ll often add Asti to the base of a pasta sauce.
Asti is amazing with desserts, and my word I tried a few in Italy. If you’re looking for a wine to match sweet things, you should aim for a wine as sweet as that sweet thing. Asti very often ticks the box in that respect. Enjoy.
Asti DOCG wines are unique and delicious
Walter Speller said: “Asti is a unique wine, a unique place and has a unique background.
“We have many jewels in this region.
“The coming together of the micro-climate, the terroir, and the people, results in the best expression of the moscato grape in the world.”
I’m a convert. Asti DOCG wines are delicious.