Sham-pagne

Getting acquainted with the other sparkling wines  
By RUTH TOBIAS  |  January 12, 2006

"Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends!" However clever, whoever first made that punny toast (and, no, dear readers, it was not Fall Out Boy) was forgetting a third alternative: sham Champagne for all. Or, to put it another way, real sparkling wine for all. You see, the term "Champagne" simply refers to sparkling wine from the eponymous region of France; the designation is primarily geographical. Granted, it may be secondarily qualitative: experts consider Champagne to be the world’s best sparkling wine due to the region’s fortuitous combination of cool climate and chalky soil (which, conversely, makes for dreadful still wines). But, for all its cachet, it doesn’t imply that its non-Champenoise brethren are merely poor imitations — any more than a Bordeaux label, by disassociation, sheds a negative light on a Barolo.

So lay to rest those harrowing flashbacks of your first New Year’s Day hangover, brought on by one too many plastic flutes of the swill that is cold duck (a German invention, originally meant to stretch a bottle of leftover Champagne by mixing it with inferior wine and sugar, which we Americans briefly revived as a fad in our era of shame — the ’70s, of course). This holiday season, you can replace them with warm and fuzzy — make that chilled and fizzy — memories of truly tasteful sparkling wines from Italy, Spain, and even California. Of course, the fact that they’re generally much more affordable than Champagne means you don’t have to limit their consumption to special occasions — which is, in itself, something to celebrate. To learn more, come along with us on a bubbly bar crawl.

In Italy, as in France, the best-known sparkling wines come from the north. There’s Piedmontese Asti spumante, made with the Moscato grape by the Charmat method of fermentation — which, though less painstaking and venerated than the classic méthode champenoise, still beats the polyester pants off tacky carbonation. There’s the sparkling red known as Brachetto d’Acqui, also from Piedmont — drunk as a dessert wine by well-bred types, downed like soda pop by people like us. And from the Veneto, there’s prosecco, generally the driest of Italian sparklers and thus best served as an aperitivo. Now, since the bar at Prezza (24 Fleet Street, Boston, 617.227.1577) is one of the classiest yet coziest in the North End, it’s our first-round pick for a toast this time of year. Ask for a glass of Zardetto Prosecco di Conegliano Brut ($7), and you’ll get a fluteful of sparkling wine from Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, the most highly acclaimed (and hard-to-pronounce) sub-region of prosecco production. You’ll understand why from the first sip: it’s clean and zippy, with racing bubbles not so much obscuring as constituting its flavor — much the way the hue of a "blurred redbud," according to the Elizabeth Bishop poem, looks "almost more like movement than any placeable color."

And if we’re moved (read: buzzed) enough by a single glass of humble sparkling wine to start spouting poetry, imagine what a pricier, more precious potable will do. Prezza also offers a Roederer Estate sparkler from California ($10) that captures the essence of autumnal harvests — pears, apples, nuts — in its effervescence, reminding us of Keats’s "beaded bubbles winking at the brim." Oops, we did it again — see what we mean about the grandeur this stuff inspires?

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