“When things get hard to swallow / we need a bottle of moscato.” –Ab-Soul featuring Kendrick Lamar
In 2012, Moscato could do no wrong. It was fizzy. It was fruity. And it was the favored beverage of hip-hop artists like Lil’ Kim, Nelly, Kendrick Lamar, and a then-up-and-coming superstar named Drake. It had come out of nowhere to become the third-best-selling white varietal wine in the United States, after Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.
Numerous American supermarket brands—Barefoot, Sutter Home, Gallo Family Vineyards, and Ménage à Trois, to name a few—had jumped on the bandwagon, planting Moscato Bianco in bulk and charging less than $10 a bottle. In Italy, Mia Dolcea sprang onto the scene. Cupcake added the fair frizzante to its ever-growing portfolio. Pinot Grigio powerhouses Cavit and Ecco Domani also birthed Moscatos, as did Lambrusco lite specialist Riunite and Chianti king Gabbiano.
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Few if any of the production facilities, of course, were located anywhere near the city of Asti, Moscato’s rightful home, located a short drive northeast from the Nebbiolo-focused prestige wine towns of Barbaresco and Barolo. Here, members of the Asti DOCG consortium are required to meet rigorous quality standards in their Moscato production. Producers in other regions are not subjected to the same regulatory oversight.
In 2016, Moscato peaked. And then U.S. sales growth slowed, to a piddly 2.1 percent, according to Nielsen. By 2017, the trajectory began dipping downward. And while the category isn’t yet performing as poorly as, say, Merlot or Syrah, the sales outlook for 2018 is fairly bleak. Industry observers are beginning to mutter the cursed word overplanted when conversations turn to Moscato. “I don’t see Moscato recovering anytime soon,” observes Rob Griffin, the director of Fine Wine & Imports for the California distributor Wine Warehouse.
“Trends, in the wine business especially, come and go,” adds Griffin. “They fade when consumer interest shifts to the next shiny new thing. When this happens, big brands typically course correct, often de-emphasizing one category to promote another.”
Moscato’s moment, then, appears to have come and gone. Rosé is currently enjoying a seemingly unstoppable ascent, leaving Moscato behind as the wine of choice for warm weather. And today’s prevailing dietary wisdom distains sugar—a knock against the sweet, low-alcohol sparkling wine.
But in Piemonte, Italy, the Moscato producer Paolo Saracco has avoided the boom as well as the bust. His wines, sourced from Castiglione Tinella, within the DOCG zone of Moscato d’Asti, have seen solid, steady sales growth, of 27.5 percent during the five-year span of 2013 through 2018.
How has Saracco done it? By being a category specialist. Setting aside the supermarket brands for a moment, Saracco is, he says, the only winemaker within the DOCG to focus solely on Moscato rather than making it as a footnote to Barolo and Barbaresco. “In Champagne, they make only Champagne; they don’t make Bordeaux blends,” says Saracco with a shrug. “In Castiglione Tinella, the conditions are perfect for making Moscato.”
In 2011 the critic Antonio Galloni dubbed Saracco the Maestro, most likely referring to Saracco’s obsession with his work. To assure consistency, Saracco takes selection massale cuttings from each of his 17 vineyards every winter and uses them to fill out gaps in the spring. And to ensure freshness, he keeps his unfermented juice on ice, so to speak—in a refrigeration tank at -2°C—then ferments and bottles a fresh batch every month or so, starting in December, as some Prosecco producers do. The release date is stamped on the front label of each bottle.
Saracco was the first Piemonte winemaker to introduce quality Moscato to the U.S. market, back in 1992, undoing more than a decade of cheesy Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante commercials—“When you’ve got good taste, it shows!” And his label was the first to come to the attention of the kings and queens of hip-hop. On a 2005 remix of singer-songwriter Teairra Marí’s seductive “Make Her Feel Good,” Kanye West raps confidently, “Saracco Moscato: It do taste better.”
As hip-hop stars continued to play with the rhyming possibilities presented by a three-syllable Italian word at 90 beats per minute, Italian and Californian producers rushed to get cheap Moscato to market to meet rising demand. While the also-rans introduced their products at aggressive price points under $10, Saracco never wavered from his $16 to $18 retail price. And with so many also-rans producing Moscato elsewhere, Saracco constantly hammered home the authenticity of Moscato vinified in the low-alcohol, frizzante style from the Asti DOCG.
While the northern Italians traditionally drink frizzante Moscato as a digestif, after a meal, on holidays, and at celebrations, Saracco sold his as an everyday food wine: “It is good with salumi—and pizza too,” he says with a smile. In no small part due to his efforts, American consumers associate Moscato with spring and summer, as an apéritif or a brunch wine.
In addition, Saracco has popularized the half-bottle in on-premise settings. Because his wine is so drinkable and low in alcohol, Saracco says, “anyone who drinks one glass will end up drinking two.” Restaurant buyers snap up 375 ml formats because they know they’ll be consumed and the wine will be fresh.
Saracco has found still more unconventional ways to get his product in front of the right people.
Chris Horn, the director of wines and spirits at the nine-restaurant Heavy Restaurant Group, which includes the wine bars Purple and Claret in Seattle, was one of those people. In 2016 he was with a gang of somms attending the Barolo summer music fest Collisioni at night and tasting wines all day. After marathon sessions of Barolo and Barbaresco, the group faced a peculiar challenge: a vertical of Saracco Moscato, dating back to 2000.
“It was one of those paradigm-shifting moments, and also very humbling,” Horn recalls. “We wine people study, memorize, and adhere to these truths, one of which is, ‘You must drink Moscato young. Moscato does not age.’ As a buyer, if I came across it on a closeout sheet, I used to say, ‘No, I want the current vintage.’”
Saracco is obsessive about establishing equilibrium between sugar and acidity in his light, frothy wines, even though they are nearly always consumed immediately. As a result, Horn recalls having his mind blown. (Saracco isn’t the only Moscato producer to have put previous vintages to the test, but Moscatos are in danger of assuming the plasticky aroma of Bakelite over time, as one Italian critic recently found.)
For Horn, the older Saracco Moscatos revealed notes of mint and lemongrass as they matured but didn’t appear to suffer at all from cellar age. The 2000 was tasting just fine; Horn’s favorite vintage was the 2008. “My tasting notes,” he says, “say things like, ‘Holy shit, this is delicious!’”
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Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of The Four Top, a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One. She is currently working on a fifth book, Sparkling Wine Anytime (Abrams), to be published in Fall 2020.