Moscato D’Asti Behind the Vines in the Time of Covid

Spring is starting to show signs that it has arrived in Chicago.  As I take my walks outside to break up my COVID confinement, daffodils and hyacinths are in bloom in the neighborhood. These hints of color stand out among the grays, black and browns of city living.

When it comes to vineyards, the vines are not in confinement and they keep growing. Nature knows no bounds. But given my confinement and time to write, I thought I would check in with some of the producers I visited as part of my Asti DOCG Immersion Trip, several years ago, to see how they are coping with COVID and where they are in the grape growing process. But before hearing from the producers, let’s look at what makes the Asti DOCG wines special.

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The aromatic, frizzante (slightly sparkling) and spumante (full strength sparkle)  Asti DOCG wines, Moscato D’Asti, Asti Dolce and Asti Secco capture in a glass, the scents of Spring and Summer, the smell of flowers, ripe fruits and fresh herbs. These are year-round wines, but their intoxicating aromas of orange blossoms, honeysuckle, ripe peach and sage evoke warm, Spring days and Summer nights, flowers in bloom and fruit on the trees. They are summer in a glass, fresh, vibrant, reminders, particularly in Chicago, of good times to come, after the many days of bleak grey skies and barren trees. These are happy wines.

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Moscato D’Asti, the slightly sparkling, low alcohol around 5%, sweet, 100 grams residual sugar is the wine of choice for Midwest wine drinkers who prefer a light, sweeter wine. When they want more sparkle in their glass, they opt for Asti Dolce or Asti Secco (drier).  All 3 styles, are within the same Asti DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).  Moscato from Asti are delicately crafted wines with history behind them, unlike other sweet wines that aren’t produced as carefully. Consumers choose Moscato D’Asti, Asti Dolce and Asti Secco (fruity but drier) because they taste delicious. These are wines made by small, family producers where the sugar doesn’t stand out but is gracefully integrated into a delicate, balanced wine that happens to be sweet.

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Its All About the Grape – Moscato Bianco

Whether you choose Moscato D’Asti, Asti Dolce or Asti Secco, it is all about the grape. The secret to the beauty of these wines is the Moscato Bianco grape, the founding member of the Muscat family of grapes.  Moscato Bianco, known in France as Muscat á Petit Grains is thought to be possibly ” The” original wine grape, of all wine grapes, that the Greeks cultivated. It is a Mediterranean grape, moving from Greece to Italy and across the Mediterranean to France, where it is used to make the famous, historical, fortified sweet wines of the Rhone, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, the Languedoc, Muscat de Lunel, Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat de Mireval, and Muscat de St-Jean-de-Minervois and Muscat de Rivesaltes of the Roussillon. Muscat de Petit Grains is one of the 4 noble grapes of Alsace, alongside Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. In Italy, Muscato Bianco is the only grape grown in all 20 of Italy’s regions. But it is in Piedmont, in northwest Italy, where Moscato Bianco, of all the Muscat wines of the Mediterranean and in Italy is the shining star of the Asti DOCG and it is the shining star, whose light continues to grow brighter, of all the Muscat wines in the world.

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Asti was once known as the city of 100 towers

Grape Growing History

The history of grape growing in the Piemonte regions goes back to ancient times. There are still bricks in the streets of Asti that date back to the Romans. A statute was created in 1511, protecting the growing of the Moscato Bianco grape in Piedmont. In the 17th century, Moscato wines cost twice as much as other varietal wines. Perhaps, surprisingly for Barolo fans,  the Asti Consortium was founded in 1932, 2 years before the one for Barolo. The 70’s was the decade where Asti exploded in the US, as Asti Spumante garnished a reputation, partly due to a great marketing campaign, as the Italian sparkling wine of choice. In 1993, the Asti DOCG was established.  Today, the DOCG includes the 3 wine types, Moscato D’Asti, Asti Dolce and Asti Secco.

Producers

The delicate, well-balanced, aromatic, slightly sparkling, Moscato D’Asti, is produced by many sought after Barolo names, as well as, producers specifically focused on the Moscato Bianco grape.Michele Chiarlo ,who owns the (bucket-list for any Nebbiolo lover), gorgeous Barolo Cru resort, Palais Cerequio in La Morra, set amidst the prized vineyards of Cerequio and Brunate, produces Moscato d’Asti Nivole. Their favorite, okay, one of many favorite pairings, is a zabaione (egg custard made with Moscato D’Asti). A recap of my visit to Chiarlo is here. 

Ceretto, another Barolo producer (who own the Michelin 3 star Piazza Duomo in Alba and have an organic greenhouse to supply vegetables and herbs for the restaurant’s dishes) have a separate winery, Vignaioli di Santo Stefano and gorgeous steep-sloped vineyards in one of the “classico” zones for Moscato D’Asti , Santo Stefano di Balbo, a commune, in the northern part of the Langhe, in the province of Cuneo. You can read more about the Ceretto family here.

The greenhouse at Ceretto’s Alba winery and zabaione and Moscato d’Asti at Palais Cerequio Michele Chiarlo La Morra.

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The steep slopes where Moscato Bianco grows at the I Vignaioli di Santo Stefano winery in Santo Stefano Belbo

The Growing Areas

There are family producers like the Marenco family winery in Strevi that are specifically focused on growing Moscato Bianco and the red grape Brachetto of the red, frizzante DOCG wine Brachetto D’Acqui.  Strevi is one of the communes that could be considered one of the historic “classico” crus. The growing areas for the Asti DOCG cross provinces from Cuneo to the west, where the Barolo/Barberesco zone, the Langhe is located. Then they continue into the Province of Asti. Asti, is a case, where the city name is Asti, the wine is named Asti, and then the growing region is named Asti. To the east is the Province of Alessandria ,where the communes of Streviwhere Marenco is located, and neighboring commune Acqui Terme, known for its sulfur springs since the times of the Romans are found.  There are 52 communes in all that fall under the Asti DOCG but the towns of Santo Stefano Belbo, Castiglione Tinella and Canelli form a triangle of the most historical growing regions of the highest quality grapes (soils, steepness of the slopes, aspect of the slopes towards the sun) with the addition of Strevi and Acqui Terme to the east of them included. It is one of those areas that you drive through one beautiful commune after another.

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65096906_2442292672467821_5160296145494212608_nDuring the Asti DOCG Immersion trip, we walked through the very steep-sloped vineyards of the producers including Marenco, Ceretto, Michele Chiarlo, Coppo and Romano Dogliotti of La Caudrina. I would rather write about my wine experiences than worry over being furloughed from my day job due to the whole COVID situation. So with help from the Consorzio, I touched based with some of the producers I had visited during my trip and their accounts of coping with COVID are below.  I will add, the Consorzio not only supports the producers, they offer a traceability feature of bottles for the consumer. The Asti region, and Piedmont in general, is just an absolutely gorgeous area to visit, my pictures are all from the fall, so the hills are very green. More pictures and information on my visit to Coppo and the historic caves of Canelli and info on their NIZZA DOCG wine, Pomorosso is here.

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Coppo Moscato d’Asti DOCG Moncalvina produced in Canelli another one of the “classico” zones

Vineyards of La Caudrina located in one of the “classico zones” for Moscato d’Asti, Castiglione Tinella, the Province of Cuneo. More about La Caudrina here.

My questions for the producers, other than on their coping with COVID, were on viticulture and where they are in the grape growing cycle. The WSET curriculum has sparked my interest and curiosity about grape growing and getting behind the vines. Vines keep growing and aren’t in confinement.  The key to delicate, beautiful wines are how the grapes are taken care of in the vineyard.  What goes on in the winery is of course very important and I posted a picture of the steps involved to create an Asti wine below. Use of the autoclave (a large, steel, pressurized tank) to maintain pressure, CO2 levels and sweetness levels in the final product is critical.  However, the higher quality of the fruit, the more likely the higher quality the final product will be. All these grape growers are meticulous in the vineyards as I saw in person.  These vineyards where the Moscato grapes are grown are steep, and well-placed relative to sun exposure, wind and soil but require a ton of vigilance and by hand attention in order to grow quality fruit.

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COVID and the Winemakers

First up, Andrea Costa, son of Michela Marenco Costa of Marenco Winery. Marenco was founded in 1925 by Michele Marenco, Michela’s grandfather. He acquired the vines and the winery in Strevi, a commune within the Bagnario Valley, which is most known for Moscato Passito .Now Michela with her sisters Patrizia Marenco (the winemaker) and Doretta Marenco along with Andrea her son and Filippo Furlani (the agronomist) manage the wines. Andrea responded to my questions below. What I love most is Andrea’s comment that he is not holding back enjoying wines and that COVID is a time to enjoy good wines with his family. I think this COVID confinement is a great time for everyone to savor small indulgences like beautiful wines.

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Andrea Costa – Marenco – yes it was a bit muddy that day
  1. How are they? Has COVID affected themselves or their family? Have they been quarantined? How are they managing? Since March 8th we live the lockdown. Basically everything is closed. The work at the winery is not closed, because for Italian culture, wine is an essential need. But our customers , the restaurants and wine shops are closed. So we don’t deliver much at the moment but we try to give support to our good customers. Fortunately all my family is well. We try to remain positive and can’t wait to be out of this bad time as soon as possible.
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Marenco Scrapona Vineyard Strevi
  1. Has COVID protocols affected their practices in the vineyard? In the cellar?       Not many changes in the vineyards work where people work in the nature, and they stay one per row, granting at least 2,5 meters distance. At the cellar we are wearing masks, gloves, and performing extra sanitizations. We can survive with this.
  2. Will COVID affect the availability of wine in Chicago? No, our importer has stocks, and we are able to deliver more upon requests. Our Distributor in Chicago is Maverick, they know our wines very well and they’ll make sure to provide availability to the customers. I hope the situation in Chicago won’t get too bad and it’s possible to restart soon.
  3. What bottle will they open to celebrate when the pandemic is over?  I’m not waiting actually. I’m using the time at home to enjoy many good wines. I drink Marenco ,of course, specifically, the old vintages that I’m taking from my personal cellar. But also wines from the producers i like. I’m really enjoying some good wines. Yesterday at lunch I had a good Pederzana Lambrusco, then a Barolo 2016 by Roberto Voerzio, and i finshed with a 2005 Marenco Scrapona Passito di Moscato.
  4. What part of the vine cycle are you up to? What are you doing in the vineyard right now?We finished pruning almost two months ago and we are using this springtime to prepare the soil for new vineyards and to replace the vines that died last year. In a week from now we will start green pruning. That’s gonna be the busiest couple of weeks of the year  besides harvest. 

Food and Wine

  6. What are your favorite specific foods with Moscato D’Asti? I like to get new ideas or classic pairings or pairings with specific local foods 

Well, I shouldn’t talk about pairings because there is no right and wrong. But I’ve seen in my traveling many good pairings with moscato. The most classic here are Panettone, Tiramisu, biscotti, zabaione. Around the world i’ve paired and appreciated Moscato d’Asti with fried sage, light cheese, salame, charcuterie, anchovies and butter, shrimps…

 

Next up, Gianpiero Scavino I Vignaioli di S Stefano-Ceretto

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Federico Ceretto middle, Gianpero Scavino right

 

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The logo on the Ceretto bottle references a book, The Moon and the Bonfires written by Cesare Pavese, a notable Italian novelist who grew up in the area.

The Scavino brothers, Gianpiero and Andrea, inherited their share in the company, I Vignaioli di Santo Stefano, from their father, Giancarlo. Gianpiero handles viticulture and Andrea winemaking. In 1980, the Ceretto family took over promotion, marketing and sales. The winery sits on a perch above the vineyards and has a breathtaking view of the area. Gianpiero, gave me his feedback on how things are going in this new world of COVID.

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1.COVID, how is your family and your winery? Fortunately, our family and all the families who work with us in the company had no problems with Covid. Our company, as you well remember, is located in a small village where there are no large assemblies and therefore Covid has not developed much. Up to now 4,000 inhabitants have had 10 infections and unfortunately one death of an 87 year old person.

2.What protocols do you have in place? At the moment the situation is under control in the sense that we are at home and we move for work or to do the shopping with masks and gloves. All practices put in place by the government seem effective for the containment of the infection that would appear to regress.

3. Work in the Vineyard -As for our company, we can operate as part of the agricultural sector. The work in the vineyard does not stop; the plant continues its vegetative activity and the work of arranging the next branches must be done.

4. Work in the Cellar The cellar work, on the other hand, has slowed down as the entire HoReCa Italia chain is closed and therefore we only work on orders that come from abroad. Gloves and masks are also used in the cellar while in the vineyard, being an outdoor work and working far apart, the mask may not be used.

5. Wine in Chicago The wine in Chicago I think has no difficulty in arriving as we have product availability from the last vintage. It is sufficient for importers and / or distributors to request it and we will prepare it, perhaps delaying a few days in delivery due to the slow transport.

6. What wine will you share when it is over? At the end of this bad period, which I hope is near, more than a single bottle I would like to share some time with the people we have not been able to meet anymore And in the conviviality of a lunch or dinner, simply open a good bottle of Barbera (of which I am a producer with my brother www.belsitwinery.com) and finish the meal with a dessert and a good glass of Moscato d’Asti 2019. As was done before but it will certainly be more beautiful.

7. Current work in the vineyard The vineyard is currently in the early stages of the vegetative restart and therefore new shoots begin to form. At the moment in the vineyard we are proceeding with the elimination of the small shoots that are not used for the production of the grapes and that would create problems during the summer period making too much shade for the plant.

8. Food pairing with Moscato D’Asti Moscato d’Asti has always been the ideal product for pairing with desserts; lately we also use it as an aperitif in combination with savory canapes with for example butter and anchovies but also with portions of salted fish such as cod without forgetting the soft cheeses.

Remarks from Michele Chiarlo Wines – As mentioned above, the Chiarlo’s known for their Barolos and Barberas,  pride themselves in sourcing from the top crus for all their wines including their Moscato d’Asti Nivole.

  1. How are they? Has COVID affected themselves or their family? Have they been quarantined? How are they managing? Luckily, we are all fine and we are regularly working
  2. Has COVID protocols affected their practices in the vineyard? In the cellar Each worker has been equipped by mask and gloves respecting the safety distance of 2 mt.
  3. Will COVID affect the availability of wine in Chicago? Yes
  4. What bottle will they open to celebrate when the pandemic is over?Barolo Cerequio Riserva 2010
  5. The vineyard What part of the cycle are up to? What are they doing in the vineyard right now? We are planting a new vineyard of Barbera  Note – I would like to add the Chiarlo produces Barbera from the Nizza DOCG which is a subzone of Barbera D’Asti and produces the longest aged Barberas. Their 2015 Cipressi Nizza DOCG was Wine Enthusiast’s #1 wine for 2018.
  6. What are their favorite specific foods with Moscato D’Asti? I like to get new ideas or classic pairings or pairings with specific local foods. Hazelnut cake and zabaione

This part of Italy, Piedmont, foot of the mountains, in the Asti region, is an ideal growing area for grapes due to the soils, the slopes and the climate. It is heartening to hear from these winemakers that they are coping with COVID. The vines of the noble Moscato grapes keep growing and winemaking continues as it has done for centuries.

I cannot wait for warm weather to arrive permanently to Chicago when a chilled glass of Moscato D’Asti  is just the refresher required, the perfect spring/summer sipper. For those interested in the drier side of Asti, try Matteo Soria’s Bric Prima Bella. The COVID confinement, has given people in Chicago, extra time at home that they usually don’t have, which has lead to much more home cooking and drinking. I may take up the Chiarlo’s suggestion and attempt to make some zabaione with Moscato d’Asti for a small indulgence. Its something that I would not have had the time for previously but now in this COVID environment I do. As Andrea Costa remarked, now is the time to share good wine and food with your family, it is the small pleasures that mean the most in times like this. So lets all make the most of it!

Thank you to the producers for feedback of their experiences during COVID and to the Consorzio for their help as well.

References

The Asti DOCG Consorzio

Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine Tom Stevenson Essie Avellan MW Grapes & Wines Oz Clarke & Margaret Rand Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs Ian D’Agata Oxford Companion to Wine, Robinson Wine Grapes Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz

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