The revolution in wine making

Edoardo Vallarino Gancia, patriarch of Castelli Gancia Canelli in Piedmont, Italy, makes a lovely Moscato d'Asti.
WAG’s resident Bacchus is just back from northern Italy, where wines from Moscato Bianco and Barbera grapes are undergoing a makeover.
Edoardo Vallarino Gancia, patriarch of Castelli Gancia Canelli in Piedmont, Italy, makes a lovely Moscato d’Asti.

I love revolutions, that is revolutionary new approaches in the wine world designed to improve the quality of the wines and the tasting experience for the consumer radically. I have traveled to the Vinho Verde region in northern Portugal a couple of times and many of the wines being made there are almost unrecognizable from just one previous generation. Reducing vine yields by allowing fewer grapes per vine, proper vine trellising, finding better-growing plots and employing better wine- making techniques all contribute to a higher-quality wine. The same holds true in many countries from the former Soviet Union where that government oversaw bulk and uninteresting wine production — quantity over quality. 

I recently returned from an insightful trip to northern Italy where I witnessed firsthand two revolutions in the making. 

The Piedmont region west of Milan is tucked in between the foothills and the historic cities of Asti and Alba and is surrounded by the massive white-capped Alp mountain range that extends into eight European countries. Two wines are in the process of a makeover, both actual and in their reputation.  The vineyards in the Asti area are hilly and planted with the Moscato Bianco vines, the only grape used for Moscato d’Asti.  One winemaker I met told me, “This region is hills, hills, steep hills and very steep hills. I sometimes think I would be better off with a significant leg length imbalance.” Of the 21,000 acres planted to Moscato Bianco, 3,000 acres have a gradient pitch of greater than 40 percent. That is steeper than the steepest New England ski trail. As a result, all of the vineyard work is done by hand, which preserves the fruit allowing for a truer and fruitier expression of the grape in the glass. 

The other grape of the region undergoing a revolution is the Barbera grape, the underperforming stepchild of red grape production in northern Italy. Nebbiolo has always been considered a superior grape in the region for its ability to age and improve for decades. As a result, Nebbiolo was always planted on the finer plots of land and given proper respect and attention, and Barbera was reduced to lesser plots to produce voluminous easy-drinking wines to drink shortly post-harvest. But by employing similar measures to bring a finer wine to market, Barbera could very well be one of the best cost-to-value red wines available today. I sat in on a few master classes and tasted many Barbera wines with the winemakers or vineyard owners and, as a group, these Barberas of today overdeliver. 

Since 2014, the Moscato d’Asti region has been a UNESCO site, recognized for its natural beauty and history of grape growing and wine making and the interaction of man with the natural habitat. Moscato d’Asti wines are known for youthful and fruity expressions of the grape, with a wonderful balance of citrus, aromatic flavors, light sweetness and effervescence. The grapes are gently crushed, the juice is fermented and, at some point during the active fermentation — as the sugars are being transformed into alcohol — the process is halted by chilling. 

When the winemaker feels all the components of acidity, aroma and alcohol have merged properly, it is time to bottle the wine.  Many of the residual sugars from the grape remain in the wine, showing a sweetness with light bubbles and low alcohol levels starting at around five percent alcohol by volume. It makes for a food-friendly wine to be served as an aperitif, with salad or dessert. And it makes for a perfect lunch or afternoon wine, where the residual sugars may well energize your company and there will be no need for a nap. 

Walter Speller, Italian wine specialist for Jancis Robinson, discussed Moscato d’Asti at a master class. He told us, “Other regions are planting Moscato and I see it as a complement to the grape and this region, but it doesn’t measure up the the Moscatos of Piedmont. The soils, the nearby mountainous and oceanic influences make the wines here light and dance off the palate.” The aromas and flavors you are likely to find are orange and lemon citrus, wisteria, honey, lavender, apple, pear and/or banana. It’ simply a wonderful fruit cocktail in a glass. 

Barbera is the most planted grape in Piedmont and has made incredible strides in quality in the past 10 to 15 years. It is native to the region, is high in acidity and naturally low in tannins and grows vigorously.  The region is actively moving toward sustainable and organic methods. Oak aging is now a regular addition to the wines, which add complexity and structure, making Barberas an age-worthy wine. I tasted many Barbera d’Astis over a few days and every one of them showed red or black cherry flavors, a spiciness akin to pepper, cedar or licorice, good acidity, ample mouthfeel and a seductive smoothness. In buying Moscato d’Astis and Barbera d’Astis, pay a couple of more dollars and look for the DOCG labled wines. DOCG is the label earned by reaching a better level of wine production and is affixed to the neck of every DOCG wine in Italy. The DOCG label has a unique number and a QR code and, with just a little research, even in the store, you can learn everything you need to know about the wine and the vintage. Both Moscato d’Asti and Barbera d’Asti have become a bit trendy now but your store or restaurant should have a few bottles from which to choose.  This revolution is bearing fruit. 

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