A recent week touring northern Italy to visit throngs of relatives taught me something about the family blood. It must be made of sparkling wine. Or it should be, given the rate at which my people put it back. Mostly the bubbly in question is Prosecco, the globally trendy style from a region near the hometown north of Venice. Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be a flute on offer, and not just because of homecoming festivities.
As a cousin, Lorenzo, who trotted out three brands during a large basement dinner party in Pravisdomini, declared, "Qui non si mangia se non c'e Prosecco" (Here we don't eat if there's no Prosecco). With other family at a restaurant in Portogruaro, a medieval trading post connected by channels to Venice, it was pizza and prosecco alla spina, young sparkling wine drawn from a tap into wide-mouth plastic pitchers, the sort reserved for cheap lager in Canadian beer halls.
In the city of Pordenone, at another cousin's insistence, we ordered Aperol spritzes, cocktails made with orange-flavoured Aperol liqueur and Prosecco – as did virtually everyone else at the outdoor café at 6 p.m. On the tiny island of San Clemente in the Venetian lagoon, a 15-minute water taxi from the main city, I opted for a glass of Franciacorta, Italy's most vaunted bubbly style. Fried seafood is bliss with crisp, mouth-cleansing sparkling wine, and the Ca' del Bosco Franciacorta was the best value on the list.
Finally, at a meal in a church hall to celebrate baby-cousin Perseo's baptism in Milan, a red, slightly sweet fizz called Brachetto d'Acqui flowed (with a selection of white sparkling wines) as part of a buffet of cold cuts and miniature pizzas. Odd as it may seem, sparkling red and cured meats are considered fine partners in northern Italy, especially in the gastronomic wonderland of Emilia-Romagna, source of the maligned, but much-improved, Lambrusco of Riunite infamy.
In Canada, bubbles have a way to go before achieving such equal status with still wines on the table or at cocktail hour. But they've made progress. Fresh, easy-drinking Prosecco, usually economically produced by refermenting still wine with yeast and sugar in pressure-sealed tanks to generate carbon dioxide (as opposed to individual bottles in the manner of champagne), has accounted for much of the non-holiday growth in sales. At $15 to $20 for most brands, the price has helped position it outside the celebration-only ghetto.
One fine example, Foss Marai Extra Dry Prosecco ($19.95 in Ontario; 88 points), captures that unpretentious flair well. A notch sweeter than "brut" (that's what "extra dry" on a sparkling wine label confusingly means), it delivers classic pear-like flavour and satisfying roundness, with floral overtones and lively effervescence.
Bisol Crede Brut Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Superiore ($19.95; 86) has pedigree in its bones, crafted by a 21st-generation winemaker, Gianluca Bisol. But it's not as bone-dry as its brut designation would suggest. It comes with an uncanny flavour of lemon-meringue pie and red apple, carried on a creamy-smooth texture.
Unlike in Italy, Prosecco in Canada faces plenty of competition, most notably from affordable Cava, sometimes called the Prosecco of Spain. At the risk of having my Italian passport seized, I must declare a stronger fondness for Cava than its Italian counterpart. Bottle fermented, it tends to be drier and more complex. That's the case with Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad Cava ($29.95; 90), a high-end cuvée. Austere, with bracing acidity, it shows apple, pear and smoky notes, with a polished texture and elegant finish. It would suit most fish and chicken dishes.
Crémant is the name for quality French sparklers made outside Champagne but using the same technique. It's the frothy world's best-buy category, with most brands roughly between $18 and $24. Domaine J. Laurens La Rose No. 7 Crémant de Limoux ($19.95; 90) shimmers with a salmon-pink hue (from pinot noir in the blend) and tastes like it could be effervescent berry ice cream without sugar. Very dry, it has the stuffing to tackle holiday turkey.
More affordable than many Proseccos but also made in the champagne style, Cathedral Cellar Brut 2009 ($16.95; 88) comes from a large producer that's put South Africa on the sparkling-wine map for many bargain hunters in Canada. The 2009 offers cherry candy, moderate dough-like character and an edgy, chalky texture that I like. It would be splendid with a cheese soufflé.
While I was in Italy, a cousin's husband expressed genuine surprise that Canada makes wine. (Hey, he was born in Paris. I'm surprised he knew there was such a thing as Italian wine.) I should have packed a bottle of Blue Mountain Brut ($23.90 in B.C.; 91) for him. Located just south of Penticton in British Columbia, Blue Mountain shares the same latitude as Champagne, and I imagine this wine would stump more than a few French experts as to its origin. The champagne-like yeasty aroma replays on the palate, joined by tart lemon and a whisper of chalkiness. Lean and tight, it's a great value, to pair with food or on its own.
There is no such thing as cheap champagne, but there are better deals than others. A great example: Tarlant Zéro Brut Nature Champagne ($44.95; 93). At $20 less than the entry-level offerings of some bestselling big brands, it's arguably more complex. The "zero" in the name refers to the so-called dosage, the sugar solution typically added to sparkling wines to balance their piercing natural acidity. Brace yourself – there's no added sugar here. I love zero-dosage wines. This one's pleasantly creamy, with nuances of hazelnut, pastry dough and candied citrus. It needs food, any food. Even Italian cold cuts.