Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Lazing in a hammock, chilled glass in hand, I’m sipping my new favorite summer wine, moscato d’Asti.
Who knew that this would bond me to the hip-hop community? Ever since rapper Kanye West started giving shout-outs five years ago to the lightly fizzy, perfumey white wine, moscato has been a varietal on the rise.
There are four main varieties of the versatile muscat grape, which can be made in styles from dry to sweet. The star of the family, though, is moscato bianco, used in Italy’s classic moscato d’Asti, from the Asti area of Piemonte.
These wines mostly fall in the middle of the sweetness spectrum and are gently sparkling, or, as Italians say, frizzante. They’re the frivolous, under-$20 whites in a serious region that produces collectible, expensive Barolos.
While the grape has been a local staple since the Crusades, only with modern cellar technology was the current style of moscato d’Asti possible.
Thanks to heady aromas of orange blossom and rose petals, refreshing citrus and pear flavors, and only 5 to 6 percent alcohol, today’s gulpable fizzy moscato could practically be a breakfast wine. It has day-drinking written all over it.
With light sweetness balanced by zingy acidity, most examples play well as an easy-drinking aperitif, weekend brunch wine, sunset-watching beach pour, dessert partner or late night sipper while stargazing in the hot tub.
After years of being overlooked except by hard-core Italophiles, the wines now have buzz -- as well as the inevitable cheap copycat versions from California and Australia.
According to research company Nielsen, moscato is the fastest growing white varietal, or as vice president Danny Brager told Wine & Spirits Daily last month, one of this year’s “speeding bullets.’’
In the U.S. market, retail sales overall grew more than 100 percent last year. It’s hard to know how much the hip-hop community has helped the market. After Kanye West chose Saracco Moscato d’Asti to pour at a “listening party’’ in Atlanta in 2005 and then mentioned it in a remixed version of Teairra Mari’s “Make Her Feel Good,’’ orders poured in to the importer, Brian Larky of Napa Valley-based Dalla Terra Winery Direct.
Lil’ Kim slips the line “Still over in Brazil/Sippin’ moscato’’ into her best-selling single “Lighters Up.’’ Canada’s Aubrey Drake Graham, who acts and records as Drake, pairs a glass of moscato with lobster and shrimp in Trey Songz’ “I Invented Sex.’’ And a song called “Moscato’’ appears on an Ab-soul disc with Kendrick Lamar that came out earlier this year.
The buzz is there, ditto the sales, and the name moscato is easy to pronounce and remember. No wonder Australian plonk label Yellowtail released their first one this spring. To see how the ubiquitous big brand copies compare with real Moscato d’Asti, I set up a blind tasting of nearly two dozen bottles.
The taste gap reminds me of the way remakes of classic films rarely succeed as well as the original. Most are simple and, frankly, yucky.
I don’t find the Yellowtail ($7) “more refreshing than a scoop of sorbet’’ as the press release promises, but people who like lemon-lime soda will probably love it.
I’d dismissed the pale pink 2011 Innocent Bystander rose moscato ($15) from Australia because of its oh-so cutesy name. But I find it’s lively and refreshing, with watermelon and rose petal aromas and attractive strawberry and citrus tastes that are definitely adult. The wine comes with a crown cap, like beer, and in Australia more than a dozen restaurants and hotels are serving it on tap.
My highest scores, though, go to Italy’s moscato d’Astis from the 2010 vintage, which cost between $14 and $16. Two vie for top place. The Saracco, made by moscato specialist Paolo Saracco, has fresh lemon-drop acidity, savory elegance, and a seductive creamy texture. (I’m with Kanye on this one.) The Elio Perrone Sourgal is delicate, more complex than most, and has a tantalizing orange blossom aroma and a balance of citrusy fruit and minerality.
But I also like the sweeter Vietti “Cascinetta’’ with its ginger and peach aromas and round, peachy flavors. Same for the La Spinetta “Bricco Quaglia,’’ the first single vineyard moscato in Italy, made by renowned winemaker Giorgio Rivetti. Silky textured and frothy, it has a sweet spiciness.
Later, I stop in at my local wine merchant to see what he stocks and how moscato is playing in my town of 2,800 residents.
“What’s not to like? They have the deliciousness factor,’’ says owner Ira Smith, who shows me the five Moscato d’Astis and seven other labels he stocks.
He repeats the old truism: Americans talk dry, but really like to drink sweet. Besides, he says, remember those moscato d’Astis are made by the same guys who make $250 cult Barolos.
And there’s another, bigger reason. These are fun wines you don’t have to think about, only enjoy. Just right for summer.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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