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A carefree Italian way to toast Mom

Light and bubbly, moscato d'Asti is a wine a mother could love. Or is it? Jon Bonné finds out

For better or worse, Mother’s Day is a brunch holiday. And brunch is a bit of a bastard child when it comes to drinks — occasionally granted rights to a Bloody Mary or Mimosa, but almost never wine.

That makes perfect sense. It’s not just that eggs and French toast are poor matches for most wines, it’s that a Sunday morning, sitting with your mother, isn’t really prime time for wine.

There are options, though. Last year I as a refreshing low-alcohol companion to all those plates of waffles and omelets. This year, hoping to put theory into practice, I enlisted some expert help.

So I dropped my mother Bette an e-mail. “I'm planning my Mother's Day wine column and I'd like you to help me taste through the wines,” I said. “Are you game?”

“I'm more than game — actually thrilled,” she wrote back.

We set a date.

With the wines lined up, the first order of business was to remind Mom — and my father, who joined us as an honorary taster — of the differences between moscato d’Asti and Asti spumante, its better known, cheaply made cousin. The spumante version is now generally just called Asti.

Both hail from around the city of Asti, in Italy's Piedmont region, and both are made from the moscato bianco grape, known elsewhere as white muscat, or as muscat blanc à petits grains, which goes into the sweet wines of Beaumes de Venise.

But moscato d’Asti is crafted from superior grapes. Its fermentation is stopped earlier in the process, leaving more sugar and less alcohol in the wine. As such, moscato d’Asti generally lands between 5.5 and 7 percent alcohol, about half the level of a typical wine, versus 7 and 9.5 percent for run-of-the-mill Asti.

And though spumante also has about 3-4 atmospheres pressure in the bottle, lower than most Champagne, it's still far more bubbly than moscato d'Asti, which is bottled at sea-level pressure. It is made in a frizzante, or semi-sparkling style. Hence why you’ll find it sealed with a slightly modified standard cork, not the bell-shaped closures found in Champagne, and you’ll need a corkscrew to open it.

Despite having more sugar, good moscato often tastes less sweet than its counterpart, either because of greater acidity and better structure, or because most are made by small producers. By comparison, standard Asti is made almost exclusively by large companies, like Martini and Rossi. Spumante’s leisure-suit reputation hasn’t shrunk its market share: It accounts for 25 times as much of the region’s output as moscato d’Asti.

As for Mom, she not only loves bubbly, but has the sort of unabashed fondness for sweet wines that wine snoots love to dis — probably because they’re trying to distance themselves from their own pink zinfandel roots. So … perfect person to taste with, right?

Sort of. Though moscato has long had a winking reputation as a perfect “breakfast wine,” we found several too sweet to serve with even dessert, much less to pair with a sunny Sunday brunch.

Lean and less sweetThe best were on the lean side, with sweetness almost an afterthought. They offered bright acidity, citrus overtones and a white mineral character to balance out the nectar aromas, like white peach, that typify moscato. That minerality, points out Sergio Esposito, managing partner of Italian Wine Merchants in New York, is often found in moscato made from older vines grown on limestone- and chalk-heavy soil. A stony edge was present in the best of the wines we tasted, adding an overtone that transforms straightforward moscato into something more complex and curious.

This leaner style of moscato d’Asti also improves its versatility. Though the sweetness might suggest otherwise, moscato's true virtue lies not at the end of the meal but before you sit down. 

The palate-cleansing freshness, along with the low alcohol, make it a favorite as an aperitif or a meal-starter. Though a friendly wine, it can clash with many foods; the pairings that work best are often post-meal nibbles: a bit of fresh fruit, a dollop of mascarpone, a plate of biscotti.

That might explain a popular Italian tradition — to greet guests at the door with a glass of moscato in hand. Even nondrinkers often can't resist, Esposito says. “You don’t ask people if they want a glass of moscato d’Asti. You just pour it for them.”

So perhaps moscato d’Asti works best as a prelude to those tried-and-true Mother’s Day brunches, a cheery reminder to Mom that you haven’t forgotten her special day.

My own mother, however, is a tough crowd to please. “Between this and Champagne,” she quipped as we sipped our final glass, “I’d take the Champagne.”

Our tasting yielded five moscatos of note, with obscure producers mostly edging out better known names. Moscato d’Asti is a wine meant to be drunk young and fresh, so look for the 2004 or 2005 vintages. The 2003s we tasted seemed to have lost much of their vibrancy. And though Mom remains a Champagne partisan, she was more than willing to share her own notes. So was my father, Jack, who didn’t let his honorary role prevent him from sharing his typically pointed opinions. (Just wait until Father’s Day, Dad.)

Il Falchetto 2004 “Tenuta del Fant” ($15, Vitis Imports): A curiously tall bottle from curiously small California importer Vitis. Full of licorice and pepper up front, with waxy apricot and cloves. Forceful, but with beautiful layers, and a solid acidity that cuts through the fat fruit flavors. “It’s like a whole spice rack,” I said. “We don’t have those spices in our spice rack,” Mom replied.

Cascinetta Vietti 2005 ($15, Remy Amerique): The Vietti family, one of Piedmont’s best known Barolo producers, also maintains moscato vineyards nearby in Castiglione Tinella. The latest vintage was expansive and aromatic, with white peach and lemon curd. The finish is clean and resonant, with sharp mineral notes carrying it all along. “This is the first one I could see coming in and being handed,” Mom said.  Surprisingly, Vietti’s 2004 was even better, with a waxy honeycomb note atop the fruit, a roundness from the aging and a laser-sharp finish. Mom: “It doesn’t start out that sweet, but then the sweetness comes.”

Forteto della Luja 2004 “Piasa San Maurizio” ($15, Robert Chadderdon): This Loazzolo-based winery has a reputation for some of the region’s finest sweet wines. Their moscato d’Asti is on the big side, with lemon curd and spice backing up the nectar. It’s got a bright core, and a finish that grows and offers a spicy spritz on the tip of your tongue. Even as the wine gets fatter, its minerality shines through, though its carbonation seemed a touch flat.

Villa Giada 2005 “Andrea” ($16, Vin DiVino): Made by Andrea Faccio, who also specializes in barbera, Asti’s other great wine. Clean and sharp, with a lean profile hinged on limeade and white mineral. Very precise finish, but a long one. “It wasn’t as sweet,” Mom noted, prompting Dad to suggest: “This might be an interesting wine to serve in between courses.”

Fattoria San Giuliano 2004 “Vigneto Rondo” ($17, Vignaioli Selection): Best of the tasting. Fresh mint and white minerals above the nectar, with lime overtones, crisp lines and a well-defined edge. It lasts and lasts, with a juicy disposition full of bright fruit. “This to me has more character,” Mom said, after a sip. 

Dad, not wanting to sit entirely on the sidelines, decided to get in the wine-note game. “This is like an explosion of spring flowers,” he gushed, “like being at the cherry-blossom festival in Washington.”

“Or the azaleas in Queens,” my mother replied, glancing at our outer-borough surroundings.

“Azaleas aren’t fruit, darling.”

Welcome to wine tasting with the parents.