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Prosecco: the sizzle and the fizzle Add to ...

To me, most $15 proseccos are sort of like discounted tickets to a Lady Gaga concert - tempting to others, perhaps, but still not worth the money.

Call me off-trend. The world is gaga for prosecco. Sales of the dry Italian bubbly, which typically sells for $12 to $18, are even defying the recessionary slump that sucked the wind out of most other wine categories, including Champagne.

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In Canada, volume sales of prosecco skyrocketed 266 per cent in the four-year period ending September, 2010, with annual sales reaching 111,238 nine-litre cases, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers/Canadian Vintners Association, which tracks statistics on wine and liquor. Even during the recession, volume over the past two years soared 49 per cent.

In Ontario, volume sales of the top nine prosecco brands in the 12 months ending Oct. 9 jumped 24 per cent compared with the previous 12-month period. In contrast, total volume of all imported sparkling wines, including Champagne, advanced just 3.8 per cent. International consumption of Italian bubbly, about half of it prosecco, recently exceeded domestic consumption for the first time.

The boom is especially remarkable when you consider that the wine was a marginal category outside Italy as little as 15 years ago.

Pundits are calling prosecco the "new pinot grigio," a reference to the still white wine that similarly began to light up cash registers roughly a decade ago.

Light, fruity and relatively inexpensive for a bubbly, prosecco is commonly poured as an aperitif, either at trendy dinner parties or by the glass at hip restaurants and bars. It's also the standard base for the famous Bellini cocktail, a mix of sparkling wine and peach nectar invented at Harry's Bar in Venice, capital of the Veneto region, the source of the prosecco geyser.

Curiously, the wine's image of European sophistication is relatively new. Traditionally, prosecco was treated more like beer than Champagne. To some extent, it still is.

I have scores of relatives in Veneto, and on my most recent trip there, a posse of cousins took me out to their favourite seafood house. When the time came to order wine, they deferred to me, their "wine critic" guest, to pick something. I wasn't going to impose on 10 people with something they might not like, so I lobbed the request back, saying I preferred to drink what the locals drink. Yelps of relief all 'round. "Prosecco alla spina," the elder male cousin, himself a collector with a decent cellar, announced. Spina in this context is the Italian word for tap. Before long, out came two large pitchers of prosecco, drawn from a keg, just like Coors Light at a college bar.

It was marvellous with the seafood, crisp, simple and unpretentious. Best of all, it was almost as fresh as the locally sourced fish.

Freshness is key when it comes to prosecco, a trait that distinguishes it from Champagne and most other quality sparkling wines. Those wines are made in a labour-intensive way, refermented in individual bottles and aged that way, in contact with the added yeast that produces the carbonation. The bottle-aging step gives them a rich, complex flavour and enables them to improve with a bit of age.

In contrast, virtually all proseccos undergo their secondary, bubble-producing fermentation the cheap way, in giant, sealed tanks without much aging time. The wine may resemble Champagne superficially, with bubbles and a wire-cage cork, but it's essentially a cheap-and-cheerful beverage, meant to be consumed within about a year of bottling. The hallmark of prosecco is simple fruitiness, often tasting of pear, green apple and citrus. The best have an added note of stone.

For the money, though, I generally prefer cava from Spain, which tends to be richer and more complex, with nuances of bread-like yeastiness, similar to Champagne. Just like Champagne, cavas are refermented and aged in their bottles - the expensive way. And they're priced in line with proseccos, so they tend to represent superior value. Segura Viudas is a particularly good basic cava, at $14.55 in Ontario and $15.99 in British Columbia.

"Cava heavily overdelivers for the price," says Robert Stelmachuk, sommelier at Chambar, an upscale Vancouver restaurant.

That said, Mr. Stelmachuk believes that some proseccos, such as Nino Franco Rustico, which he pours by the glass to a grateful clientele, represent good value in a field that varies widely in quality. "We go through an alarming amount," he says. "It is the kind of thing people will order without looking at a wine list."

That's unusual for a tony place like Chambar, like ordering merlot or chardonnay without caring who produced it. I and Mr. Stelmachuk suspect that most consumers are oblivious to the fact that prosecco is the name of a grape, not a wine region or category like Champagne. Or, I should say, it was until this year. In a move aimed at curbing international copycats that were jumping on the prosecco bandwagon, producers in the Veneto region, the wine's birthplace, successfully lobbied to have the name protected. Now, to be called prosecco, a wine must come from an area stretching out from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, two towns in the province of Treviso. All other bubblies made from the same grape, including the ersatz Austrian version in a can called Rich and plugged by Paris Hilton, can no longer use the term. Most will carry the name glera, an alternative, if less suave-sounding, name for the same grape variety.

That change should be telling. Where populist wines are concerned, monikers can be critical. I suspect prosecco's runaway popularity has in large part to do with the word as much as the bubbles. I don't think it's off base to suggest that people love Italian terms that are easy to pronounce, especially ones with strong P or O sounds, such as pizza, Prada and, yes, pinot grigio. The suffix "secco" also literally means "dry," suggesting a crisp profile, even though most proseccos are not as dry as most Champagnes or cavas.

Despite my reservations about most proseccos, I recognize that quality is generally improving. Still, I hope that when I return to that seafood hall near my parents' hometown, they'll be pouring fresh prosecco from a tap rather than from a Champagne bottle that has been sitting around in the cellar for too long.

What's at the LCBO

(All prices Ontario.)

Durante Le Spinee Prosecco Score: 90 Price $14.95 Rich and unusually toasty, with notes of notes of Dempster's bread-factory air, creamy lemon and apple. Top-notch. Packaged elegantly, with a regular cork.

Astoria Prosecco La Robinia Extra Dry Score: 88 Price: $12.95 A widely available brand that overdelivers. Dry but not bone-dry, with a lemon-pie core and nicely rounded profile.

Bottega Vino dei Poeti Prosecco Score: 88 Price: $12.80 Fresh, vibrant and pleasantly bone-dry, hinting at green apple and minerals, with mouth-watering acidity. Good value.

Eugenio Collavini Prosecco Score: 88 Price: $13.95 ($1 off the regular price until Dec. 5) Gently creamy, with apple in the foreground and a stone-like backdrop.

Santa Margherita Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Score: 86 Price: $17.95 From the makers of a popular, and pricey, pinot grigio. Vigorous froth, with lean citrus and stone flavours.

Val d'Oca Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Score: 84 Price: $14.20 Another popular brand, lean in flavour, with faint mineral and bread-like notes.

Mionetto Il Prosecco Score: 83 Price: $12.60 Innovative bowling-pin-shaped bottle sealed with a beer cap. The effervescence and pear and apple-skin flavour are too parsimonious for my money.

Giovello Prosecco Score: 81 Price: $14.95 Red apple, subtly metallic flavour and short finish. One virtue: each bottle carries a freshness date, so you'll know if it has been sitting around on shelves for too long (namely, more than year).

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

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