Wine Column: Wines from Asti aren’t always nasty

In this new year, Long Island’s vintners must plan for the next growing season while finishing 2011’s wines in the cellar. After a difficult growing season, local wineries have an unusual amount of rosé that otherwise would have been red wine. I predict some creative marketing as 2011 wines make it to consumers.

Just before Christmas, I had a fascinating dinner, hosted by some august producers from the northern Italian province of Asti, that highlighted the challenges of marketing new wines. Asti has been known for centuries for its sweet, low alcohol sparkling wine made from the distinctively aromatic muscat grape. For over 30 years, I have harbored a personal animosity toward this wine after suffering the worst hangover of my life following a multi-course dinner at which Asti Spumante was the only wine served. Although it was my own fault, I never wanted to see the stuff again.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who identifies Asti with its sweet Spumante and their own indiscretions. Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible,” calls it “a noxiously sweet poor man’s Champagne.” The producers know this and are making efforts to change both their product and its image.

Here on Long Island, we have a winemaking history that is so short, our winemakers are unfettered by longstanding traditions or restrictions on what grapes we can grow. In Italy, wine producers who want to modernize often must decide between growing grapes that don’t fit current consumer preferences or growing varieties that can only be marketed outside Italy.

The dinner I attended, held in an intimate dining room of the “Leopard” restaurant, was sponsored by the Cantina Sociale di Canelli, a cooperative of over 200 Asti growers who have taken the export option, selling 90 percent of their wines outside Italy in order to enjoy greater freedom with varieties and styles of wine produced. I and a dozen other wine writers and merchants were treated to a meal of Italian specialties paired with four excellent Asti wines that have yet to find distributors for the United States. Kevin Zraly (a wine expert about whom I wrote in November) led the tasting, inviting us to give honest appraisals of the wines and their presentation.

Usually, events like this are much larger, and the invited industry guests sip politely without giving feedback to the producers. But in this case, the room was so small, and the Italian producers so genuinely open, we had a vivid exchange about several aspects of the wines served.

The first wine, an absolutely delicious Brut sparkling wine made, like its sweeter Asti sibling, using Charmat process carbonation, created the most controversy — not for its quality, but for its name: “Pinot Chardonnay.” In Europe, wines are not customarily labeled with varietal designations, but here, they are. This wine is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so the label should name both varieties, not conflate the name. “Chardonnay” used to be known in the U.S. as “Pinot Chardonnay” until sometime in the 1970s, when analysts proved that Chardonnay is not related to the Pinot family, though both are grown in Burgundy. We journalists told the producers that calling this Italian wine “Pinot Chardonnay” would thoroughly confuse the American market.

Next, we enjoyed a lovely, lemony and fresh Chardonnay made in an unoaked, dry style. With 12 percent alcohol, it was charmingly light, very comparable to our Long Island Chards. This prompted little controversy, though there was some discussion of whether it should have been aged in wood. Some wine critics always want wines to taste like they came from California, but I liked it the way it was.

Along with a superb loin of veal, we had a supple, pretty, 100 percent Barbera, a dry red wine that divided the room’s opinions. Zraly, who has spent his life buying wine for high-end restaurants, declared it “the perfect red for wine-by-the-glass.” I agreed, but Adam Strum, publisher of the Wine Enthusiast (a leading wine journal with 680,000 readers, plus a wine accessories catalog and online wine shop), found this Barbera unsuitable for the “American palate.” I think he meant that it should have more alcohol, tannin and extract.

It discouraged me to hear this yummy wine dismissed so easily by a top industry opinion leader. I hope the Asti producers will succeed in selling these beautifully balanced wines here and disregard the advocates of gigantic wines.

We finished with — you guessed it — Moscato d’Asti. I didn’t get a hangover.
Happy New Year!

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.