Moscato d’Asti

 Even though it’s been around for thousands of years, Moscato is the hottest grape on the American wine market at the moment. According to Nielsen data, sales of Moscato doubled from 2009 to 2010, and practically doubled again the following year; E & J Gallo is selling six times as much as they did in 2008. Wineries are scrambling to import the grape from Europe, and new plantings are sprouting in California.

Much of the appeal is probably due to Moscato’s combination of slight sweetness and prominent acidity. Most of the table wines being made are off-dry but balanced—imagine something with the sweetness of White Zinfandel that actually tasted like wine. Part of the craze is also due to the popularity of Moscato in hip-hop culture, with rappers such as Kanye West, L’il Kim and Drake singing its praises.

In the midst of this, Americans are rediscovering Moscato d’Asti. This sparkling wine hails from Asti, in the southeastern part of Italy’s Piedmont region. It is semi-sweet, low in alcohol and lightly carbonated, with a sexy, enticing nose and an overload of ripe fruit flavors. Though generally served as a dessert wine, it can also double as an apertivo depending on your taste. While there are some great producers—Paolo Sarocco and La spinetta come to mind—perhaps the best known is Nivole, the Moscato d’Asti from Michele Chiarlo.

Michele Chiarlo has been making wine since 1956, and today he and his family control 272 acres of Barolo, Barbaresco, Bearbera and Gavi. His Nivole (meaning “clouds”) comes from the hills surrounding Canelli. The wine is fermented with natural yeasts to a low level of alcohol; unfermented Moscato is added back in to reach the desired sugar levels, and the wine is bottled immediately to preserve freshness.

The 2011 Nivole ($15, 375 ml) has a pale straw color and a gentle level of carbonation (about half the level of a typical sparkling wine, along with a mere 5% alcohol). The nose is crisp and floral, with seductive aromas of honeyed peach and apricot. In the mouth, the sweetness is perfectly balanced by bracing acidity. Luscious flavors of tree fruit and ripe melon emerge in the mid palate and continue on the finish, which is plump and delightful. This is a Tom Jones wine, to be sure—although you can keep your clothes on, if necessary, and get a considerable amount of pleasure by pairing it with a fruit tart.

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