“It’s OK if I cry,” I tell the woman taking my order. She looks at me a little strangely but nods her head. I’m placing a to-go order for one of my favorite dishes in Little Rock: the pork dumplings at downtown Little Rock’s Three Fold. My preferred spice level? Double poison.
“Are you sure?” the server always asks, and I’m always sure. “Trust me,” I want to say. “I’m a professional.”
Here’s the thing—I’ve got a secret weapon waiting for me in the fridge: a bottle of moscato d’Asti DOCG. It’s a perfect pairing, the complex spice of the dumplings and the subtle fizz of the slightly sweet wine. It’s a match made in heaven, or at least in a small northwestern Italy valley. Why does it work so well? It’s the balance of sweet and heat. When the amount of sugar in a wine matches the spice level of a dish, the two cancel each other out while highlighting the intricate flavors of each.
While sweet wines may get a bad rap, especially from those who only want to drink “serious wines,” moscato d’Asti deserves its place on the dinner table. In the hands of the right winemaker using time-honored techniques, one of the most aromatic and delicate wines in the world can be produced. Moscato is the Italian pronunciation of the grape muscat blanc, one of the oldest grape varieties in the world. It was a favorite of the ancient Greeks, and its popularity continued with the Romans, who planted it all over their empire. The best moscatos in the world come from Italy’s Piedmont region, especially the hillsides surrounding the small mountain town of Asti. These wines are light and ethereal, with floral aromas that remind me of those rare weeks in April and May when it seems like every flower in the state is blooming all at once. They’re slightly sparkling—frizzante in Italian—with delicate bubbles and a frothy head when poured. There is, of course, a slight sweetness, but these wines are never cloying, and it’s that delicate sweetness that makes the wine such a perfect pairing with food.
It’s unfortunately true that there are some less-than-great bottles of moscato out there, but finding a great bottle is easy with a little insider knowledge. Much like French wines, Italian wines are governed by a strict set of laws that control everything from where grapes can be planted to alcohol levels, and it’s understanding this classification system that’s the key to grabbing a great bottle. The highest tier, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or DOCG (which translates to controlled and guaranteed designation of origin), is a ranking that signifies that a wine has not only been grown in a specific place but has been inspected by the government to ensure quality. The best moscatos will always be labeled with the words “Asti DOCG.”
Tintero “Sori Gramella” Moscato d’Asti, $13
Grown in the Italian town of Mango (yes, really), this wine comes from one of the most well-known moscato vineyards in all of Italy, the hillside Sori Gramella vineyard. Delicious on its own, this wine is even better when poured over fresh Arkansas strawberries and blackberries.
Marco Negri Marsilio Moscato d’Asti DOCG, $16
Summer in a glass, this moscato is full of tropical notes of peach, papaya, pineapple and plumeria. I can’t open a bottle of this without being transported back to a vacation I once took to Zanzibar. I can almost feel the sand beneath my feet when I drink this wine. Pair it with spicy ramen, and prepare to be wowed.
Cocchi Asti DOCG, $18
A true sparkling wine, this is Champagne’s fun and flirty best friend. Notes of honey, wildflowers and ripe pineapples give way to the surprisingly complex flavors of guava and nectar. If sunshine were ever bottled, you could imagine it tasting like this.