Asti’s ascent from authenticity to sustainability and unmistakable wines
as seen on WineAlign
The northwestern Italian territory of Asti DOCG covers the area of Langhe, Roero and Monferrato and together they form the first Italian wine landscape to be recognized as a UNESCO heritage site. The grape variety moscato bianco grows in vineyards in all three to cover the counties of Cuneo, Asti and Alessandria. The area is a cultural and modern gem in the heart of Piedmont (Piemonte, in Italian), about 55 kilometres east of Turin in the plain of the Tanaro River. A sense of spirit, community and great heart echoes and reverberates through wines voracious in their appetite to capture both traditions and also the new and forward thinking Asti stories. Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti are challenging wines to produce but these folkloric producers have to do it. It Is their heritage, imperative and pleasure.
Asti Spumante DOCG and Moscato d’Asti DOCG are considered as the two most authentically aromatic Italian white wines and rank among the great wines of Piedmont. Asti Spumante is undoubtedly the world’s best-known aromatic sparkling wine and Moscato d’Asti are among the few wines in which the sensory qualities of the grapes remain unaltered as a result of soft pressing and incomplete alcoholic fermentation. Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti are declinations of the same grape variety, made from 100 per cent moscato bianco grapes that grow on limestone soils in the UNESCO World Heritage hills between Asti, Alessandria and Cuneo. Asti Spumante can be tasted in different versions, from Extra Dry, Dry, Brut and the most popular Dolce, but also in the classic method or “Metodo Classico” version.
Asti Spumante DOCG
Asti Spumante DOCG is made entirely from moscato bianco grapes, gaining benefit from chalky soils and microclimates typical of hilly areas. It has a characteristic musky flavour, well-balanced sweetness, acidity and moderate alcohol content. In recent years Asti producers have set an important new course, paving the way to expanding the range of Asti styles, based on different residual sugar levels from Demi-Sec through Extra-Brut.
The concentration of the precious aromatic substances (called linalool) produced by the moscato bianco berries peaks in the last few weeks before the grapes are harvested in early September. Harvesting is still accomplished by hand to keep the bunches whole and preserve the characteristic aroma of the grapes – factors that contribute to making Asti Spumante the most widely consumed aromatic sparkling wine in the world.
Characterized by particularly fine and persistent beading, Asti offers a fresh mouthfeel that makes it suitable as a full-meal wine. On the nose, one can appreciate a delicate floral (acacia, lavender, sage) and fruity (apple, pear, banana) bouquet.
- DOCG Status since: 1993
- Grape variety: moscato bianco
- Maximum grape yield: 10 tons/ha
- Color: straw to pale gold
- Foam: fine and persistent
- Nose: fragrant, floral, with hints of linden and acacia
- Taste: delicately sweet, aromatic, well-balanced
- Clarity: brilliant
- Minimum potential alcohol content: 11.5 per cent by volume; minimum actual alcohol seven per cent by volume for Asti Dolce and approximately 11 per cent for the other styles from Demi-Sec to Pas Dosé
Moscato d’Asti DOCG
Following the recognition of the Asti Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin (DOCG) status in 1993, Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti were identified as two different historical expressions of the same varietal. Moscato d’Asti DOCG is one of the most characteristic products of the Piedmontese wine tradition. The wine has a distinctively intense musky aroma of the grapes it is made from, a delicate flavour that is reminiscent of wisteria and linden, peach and apricot, with hints of sage, lemon and orange blossom. It has some residual sugar and a low alcohol content.
Moscato d’Asti DOCG is not technically or ostensibly a sparkling wine, as it only undergoes partial fermentation in pressure tanks. Fermentation is terminated when an alcohol content of about five per cent alcohol by volume is reached. The use of cold chain technology in the production process means the aromas and flavours of the grapes are preserved and the product can be stabilized, ready for storage and transportation.
- DOCG Status since: 1993
- Grape variety: moscato bianco
- Maximum grape yield: 10 tons/ha
- Colour: straw yellow
- Foam: fine and persistent
- Nose: fragrant, floral, with hints of sage
- Taste: delicately sweet, aromatic, characteristic
- Clarity: brilliant
- Minimum potential alcohol content: 11 per cent by volume; minimum actual alcohol 4.5 per cent by volume
For Moscato d’Asti it begins, as it must, with weight and measurements. The math is straightforward: 100 kilograms of grapes is equal to 86 of must. The first press of moscato yields 15 per cent of that 86, or 13 kg. Often only a small percentage is used for the top cuvée. The rest of the must is kept at freezing temperature (approximately -2 degrees celsius) and there are producers that keep past vintages (generally up to four) for the production of their Moscato d’Asti wines. The DOCG rule says that a vintage dated wine must consist of 75 per cent must from that year’s production.
As for recent vintages, 2021 is certainly close to the top while 2020 is widely considered to be la crème de la crème. That said 2019 was not the most aromatic, like 2016, very hot and the moscato grape does not need too much sun. The grapes will dry out, burn, lose freshness and perfumes. From tasting the must you smell honey which proves the grapes are not perfectly mature. This is where the vision of using 25 per cent must from the three preceding vintages works to great advantage. Phenolic holes are filled, absent aromas are engaged and layers of intricacy are cast. Smell an example of 17 and note the exaggerated development, rich and full of glycerin, nearly cloying. The 2016s are certainly sweet and somewhat out of balance, but there is delicacy, floral notes and it’s never cloying. The ’18s are clearer, easier to comprehend, showing nary a trace of honey. The presence of white flowers and apricot in a wine lighter in hue and more delicate in mien speaks exactly to what producers are after. When fermentation happens those aromas increase by 80 per cent. There’s the rub and the magic. Special terroirs like Castiglione Tinella are the kind that breed some of the highest acidity for moscato. A pH that averages out at 3.4 when bottled will lower to 3.1, because this is when the acidity rises.
The Consorzio coordinates and promotes the area of origin of moscato bianco grapes, whose cultivation covers approximately 10,000 hectares across 51 municipalities of the provinces of Alessandria, Asti and Cuneo. There are 10,000 hectares of vineyards for these lightly sparkling, off-dry to sweet Asti white wines and the Consorzio is entrusted to promote and protect the wines in the appellation. They are widely imitated and so undertaking legal action and registering trademarks in every country is a necessary side-hustle of the job. In terms of producer requests, all changes and modifications applied for must be approved by the consortium. An integral aspect of the work involves field, vineyard as well as laboratory research. More than 1,400 ha have a gradient over 40 per cent, with 330 hectares of this area over 50 per cent. These are vineyards historically named sorì, where no mechanical equipment can be used and vines are tended exclusively by hand. The Asti DOCG hills were the first vineyard landscape to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Born in 1932, the Consortium for the Promotion of Asti has a clear mission: to perform all the necessary actions to protect, promote and enhance the value of Asti and Moscato d’Asti, in Italy and the world. The sustainable manifesto is clear and one day spent inside the offices of the Consortium will instruct and explain all you need to know about economic, social, environmental, export, security and what Italians refer to as disciplinare policies. Regulations regarding vineyard yields, levels of alcohol, sugar, extract and bars of pressure are so defined as to ensure current production and sales viability but also explicitly what the next generation will need to carry the work forward.
The Consortium carries out technical assistance, draws up research proposals and economic assessments aimed at enhancing the value of the designation. It is there to protect and safeguard from improper use, unfair competition and counterfeiting, Asti’s officers carry out, on behalf of all those who are subject to the designation-related checks, the functions of protection, promotion and valourization, as well as informing consumers and generally looking after special interests. Policies are adopted regulating supply in order to contribute to improved coordination of the designation’s distribution on the market, through consultations with sector representatives. The consorzio plans for improving the quality of the products that must appear before judicial and administrative authorities, in Italy and abroad, in order to safeguard and protect the designation and defend the interests and rights of the producers. Surveillance actions are carried out, mainly in the distribution stage.
The hills of the Langhe are elongated, with extended crests and steeper slopes, while those of the Monferrato are rounder and gentler to look upon. Two different landscapes, with infinite variations. Where life prospers among the orderly rows of grapevines, tended by hand as they have always been. Where the seasons bring new colors against the majestic crown of the Alps, where the horizon stretches out to infinity. Where every detail amazes and warms the heart, to be treasured forever. Un territorio Patrimonio dell’Umanità. Sedimentary soils that date back 10-15 million years predominate. One is the Pliocenic basin of Asti to the northeast. The to the west around Canelli there are Serravallian (Middle Miocene) soils, stratified layers of blue clay, sand and lime. Many believe this to be the best composition for Moscato d’Asti. To the east in the area of Strevi the ground is Tortonian (late Miocene), younger at five to 10 million years, with more clay and more lime in deeper layers and colour.
The crux of the varietal situation is twofold, at once for vineyards subsisting at the foot of the Alps and also drawing energy being proximate to the sea. Seventy-five per cent of the vineyards are directly protected by the mountains. As seemingly everywhere, climate is changing here too. In the last 15 years average temperatures have increased by one degree. In the past 58 years the average increase has been by two. More important are temperature abnormalities. The centrepiece moscato bianco is a very sensitive grape and easily subjected to diseases.
Guyot training is appropriate for poor quality soils and lower yields. Broken down by altitude, 44 per cent of the vineyards are at 250-300m and 30 per cent at 300-450m. In terms of slope, 2,770 of 9,700ha have a gradient higher than 30 per cent, 336 ha with a gradient of more than 50. “Heroic agriculture” is the moniker bestowed. “The Sorì vineyards.” No mechanization is employed and a certain crucial must is picking times, especially in terms of the preservation of moscato bianco’s aromatic compounds. Yields per hectare are set at 9.5 tonnes for Asti and Moscato d’Asti.
The Consortium’s Laboratorio Analisi for the Tutela dell’Asti DOCG is one of the most advanced and technologically impressive anywhere, with the mechanization capable of carrying out a diverse set of analyses. Under the guise of Guido Bezzo, who incidentally also happens to be a virtuoso trumpeter, the lab exerts its expertise far beyond pedestrian testing of alcohol, sugar and varietal purity. It delves deeper than mere organoleptic conclusions. The lab’s research works to investigate the impact analysis results for one 750 mL bottle of Asti wine covering categories that includes a mind-boggling set of parameters: Climate change; Reduction of the ozone layer; Toxicity and carcinogenic effects on humans; Particulate/smog caused by emissions of inorganic substances; Ionizing radiation effects on human inorganic health; Photochemical ozone formation; Acidification; Terrestrial, aquatic and marine eutrophication; Ecotoxicity in freshwater aquatic environments; Soil transformation; Resource depletion in water, minerals and fossils. Heady stuff indeed.
The 60,000 tonnes kept at negative four degrees in summer costs dearly in equipment and energy. It is widely believed that juice can stay in tank for up to two years without losing aromatic concentration. Fermentation takes place at 20 degrees in pressure tanks developed by Italian sparkling wine pioneer Dr. Federico Martinotti, director of the Research Institute for the Wine of Asti, who patented the method in 1895. Martinotti is credited with creating the method of developing the bubbles inside of tanks. The juice can stand pressures of more than 10 bars. Yeasts must be stopped abruptly (in a matter of a few hours) to avoid off odours and flavours, i.e rotten egg and cooked cabbage. Centrifuge and filters are used. In the past pasteurization at 50 degrees was the norm but now micro filtration screens out the yeast (at 0.2 microns) and stabilizes the wines. Agronomist/viticuilturalist Daniele Eberle also explains how Fratelli Gancia used the same techniques that the French used here in Piemonte in the late 1800s. The city of Canelli, cultural home of Asti holds the highest concentration of companies that make all the equipment necessary for bottling Spumante wines.
The association soon yielded positive results. Production gradually increased from two million bottles in the 1940s to forty million in the 1970s. A figure more than doubled nowadays. The history of the Consortium is all Piedmontese and begins from the town that is considered the capital par excellence of spumante: Canelli. It was in its cellars that, day after day, with dedication and affection, techniques were refined that nowadays give us a fine, delicate and unmistakeable sparkling wine like Asti DOCG. The know-how handed down for generations, together with the latest scientific discoveries, have led to the optimization of the production process and the definition of important procedures indispensable to guarantee the high quality of Asti DOCG.
Good to go!