Wine with Food: Asti Spumante
by Paul Kalemkiarian Sr. | August 1983
The popularity of this sparkling Italian wine in the United States has jumped with leaps and bounds during the last few years. The festive nature of the wine lends itself to selection as a gift item, and maybe because of certain misconceptions, it is not served to show its best side. This stems from the fact that Asti Spumante is usually somewhat sweet, quite flowery and aromatic. The champagne fancier will not consider it acceptable as a substitute. The sweet wine enthusiast usually enjoys it for the sweetness aspect. Little credit is given to the other attributes of the wine that really make it special.
Asti Spumante is the premier effervescent wine of Italy. It is made in and around the town of Asti, in the Piedmont wine region. Spumante in Italian means “sparkling”. Thus the popular name denotes “the sparkling wine from Asti”. The more important aspect of this wine is the grape it is made from. The Muscat grape is used, and in Piedmont it is the Moscato Bianco specifically.
Therein lies the charm of this wine. The Muscat grape is a powerful, aromatic grape that has redeeming value for what it is, and for a style of wine that it produces. It is best when it is made sweet, or semisweet. It loses its charm when it is fermented to dryness. With some of the sugar allowed to remain in the wine, it mysteriously imparts a balance of both aroma and taste that is harmonious (witness the limited but consistent popularity of the California Muscato d’Mabile, d’Angelo, and other versions of this grape made as a wine). Making a sparkling wine out of this still wine further adds to the overall taste sensation.
Adding to the “whole” taste picture, is the limited presence of yeast flavor, rather than a dominant one. This originates when the still wine is put through its secondary fermentation to produce the effervescence. In Asti, this is popularly done by the bulk process, which is responsible for the light touch of yeast. Since this style of wine is not for ageing anyway, that is all the more reason for the shortcut procedure.
So what do we have? A delicious sparkling wine, which is slightly sweet, somewhat sweet, or good and sweet, depending on the style of the maker that produces it. Quality Asti is made by the majors. No small winery can afford the expensive equipment required by the process.
So if you are given a bottle of Asti Spumante, what do you do with it? Drink it of course! Soon too! It is not for ageing.
But when do you drink it, and what food can you serve with it?
First, you can serve it as an afternoon aperitif for sipping. I always like to have something to munch on while sipping, so any tidbits that are compatible with a sweet tasting beverage are in order. Crisp, light, wafer-type cookies with some of the fruit embellished French cream cheeses are my favorite (peach or cherry). Great summer afternoon habit!
Second, you can serve dessert with it. Some kinds of dessert. Best would be fresh fruit, or fresh fruit salad. (Try adding a tiny bit of rose water to your fruit salad. It will add that much more harmony to the taste). Fresh fruit pies or tarts would also be great. Just imagine Marie Callender’s fresh peach pie with Asti – just heaven!
I prefer the first method of serving Asti. It gives one a chance to savor the wine, and the grape, for what it is. It is such a bold, dominant, pleasing varietal character. Because of the variation of sweetness level from maker to maker, you can try the different ones and select your preference. I tend to the medium sweet level. There are no other courses in a meal with which you can properly serve Asti. It generally is too sweet for that purpose. Even if you had a sweet sauced entree such as ham, the effervescence is not compatible.
Whatever you do, do not announce it as “Italian Champagne”. The wrath of the French Appellation and the Italian Denominzione Boards will descend upon you!
The only thing wrong with Asti Spumanti today is its new price level. Its popularity, I think, has raised its price in the eyes of the makers. It should not be that expensive to make. It is a super wine and has a place in the wine world.