THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Wearing Wool in Sahara

Sipping a glass of full-bodied red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Zinfandel pretty much feels like wearing wool in the dead of summer — on the palate at least.

And unless it’s an evening barbecue (after the sun has set), a nice Syrah or Zinfandel isn’t very appealing even with the best smoked meats in the world… unless you’re retreating to a freezer chill to finish your meal.

Why? Red wines feel heavier on the palate usually due to full rich fruit, maximum extraction and higher alcohol. So even if you’re enjoying it with a slice of roasted rare leg of lamb, when the ambient temperature is more than 80 degrees, it still feels like a third layer on the palate in fashion speak. When the mercury rises, what you should be looking for in a wine is a lighter body, good acid and lower alcohol.

That Perfect Wine for Hot Hawaiian Summers

If you’ve been following my manic rants on food and wine, you probably have heard of my perfect summertime wine. When the mercury approaches 90 degrees in the shade; when that spicy ethnic cuisine is perfect for the palate, but any beverage short of ice water clashes like Yankees and Red Sox fans; when your taste buds feel like hibernating until the next spring — well, that wine has been here throughout the year, and its name is Moscato d’Asti.

The Muscat grape family includes at least 200 sub-varieties of the grape, though most fall within three families: The Muscat a Petits Grains, the Muscat of Alexandria and the Muscat Ottonel.

The grapes themselves range from the usual light green (like Thompson seedless) all the way to dark black. Most of the Muscat you find at the neighborhood wine merchant is from the Petits Grains line of Muscat. And though the Muscat grape is grown and vinified in many parts of the world — both Old World and New World — the version that has my attention during those hot, Hawaiian summers comes from the Old World, namely Italy.

Born from Northern Italy in the Piedmont region, Moscato d’Asti (as opposed to Asti Spumante, which is fully carbonated) is one of only 37 wines designated as DOCG — “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita,” the highest standard set for wines in Italy. If you thought that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was strict in the States, the DOCG guidelines make that look like child’s play.

Produced from the Moscato Bianco grape with a nose of lychee, peaches, honeysuckle, melons and candied citrus peel, with a touch of sweetness on the palate and very low alcohol, I’ve always stated and will continue to proclaim that Moscato is the best wine for spicy Asian cuisine.

The fruity notes nicely balance the mango, sweet pepper or sweet in sweet-sour sauces found in a host of Asian dishes. The low alcohol (Moscato usually only carries 5 to 6.5 percent alcohol, which is the same or less than foreign or domestic “ice” brewed beer) so it doesn’t clash with spicy elements like Thai bird chili, Szechuan pepper or togarashi, and the inherent acidity in the wine helps cleanse the palate of any residual oil from stir fried dishes.

Another bonus: most bottles are less than $20, with a large selection under $15. Cha-ching! Good food wine and wallet friendly!

A Mild Cautionary Note

During the production of Moscato, a bit of residual sugar is left in the wine, causing a mild secondary fermentation in the bottle, exactly the way champagne or Methode Traditionale sparkling wine is produced. This means that there will be a little bit of pressure behind that cork — not as much as champagne — but more pressure than still wine. Moscato producers are well aware of this, so they often cork the bottle with slightly fatter corks.

What does this mean to you? For starters, it may take a little more “elbow grease” to remove the cork than it does to uncork a bottle of pure still wine. Secondly, in the process of uncorking the bottle, a mild “pop” may occur, so don’t be startled. It’s just the bottle welcoming you with a mild fruity flatus… so to speak.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawaii and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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