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Flickering candlelight, starched white linen, oversize menus, and almond-encrusted, seared tuna isn’t the only ticket to romance on St. Valentine’s Day. When the holiday falls midweek, snuggling in front of a fireplace or gazing at the stars and moon, or in my case, the bright lights of the city, suits me fine — provided I’m admiring a new bauble and sipping a flute of effervescent bubbly. While there is a warm place in my heart for vintage champagne on this occasion, I also feel compelled to alert you to a parallel universe of sparkling wines that most people overlook — to their detriment. That thought occurred to me while I foraged for supplies over the weekend. I shop at the same places that you do — Trader Joe’s, Price Costco, and Fresh Fields, but that’s where the similarity ends. I don’t merely dash around loading my cart with giant-sized items that I’ll never find room for or use up in a lifetime. I spend a great deal of time watching my fellow shoppers, noting which bottles they reach for and which ones they reject. My conclusion? Most people find solace in familiar and comfortable choices. On one end it might be the well-advertised Spanish sparkling wine, Frexinet Brut, “Cordon Negro,” or the Korbel Chardonnay Champagne from Sonoma, and on the other end, Veuve Clicquot. The latter is a superb choice, but the point is, if you’re looking for a little adventure there are less expensive options, leaving more dinero for the trinkets and truffles. But first, some insight into the champagne-sparkling wine dust-up: In a word, it’s snobbery. M�thode champenoise is the traditional process developed in the Champagne region of France during the 17th century. Dom P�rignon, a cleric, thought of the idea of allowing the wine to undergo a second fermentation in the bottle that resulted in the bubbles and fizz. During the 19th century, Madame Veuve Clicquot refined the process by adding a few extra steps. Since then the French have become very proprietary about the whole matter, insisting that they have the exclusive right to the word champagne. So the milquetoasts of the wine world call their bubbly sparkling wine. In many cases this bubbly has good characteristics and comes at a great price. With that in mind, I assembled a group of six tasters whose wine expectations ran the gamut from plain ready-for-a-good-time to downright discerning. We tried two bottles of Prosecco, two sparkling wines from Australia, and a kosher champagne produced in France. There are three types of sparkling wine in Italy — Asti, Prosecco, and Lambrusco. Asti and the popular Prosecco are dry; the Lambrusco is sweet and more suitable for picnics. The Prosecco grape grows in the Veneto region of northeast Italy. The key to buying Prosecco is freshness, so shy away from dusty bottles. To be honest, I was lured by the cobalt bottle of Foss Marai Prosecco ($18). But, on whole, we weren’t too impressed with its overly fizzy nature, its mustiness, or its large, languid bubbles. One taster also disliked the aftertaste. Part of this wine’s problem is that its bubbly makeup was not derived from fermentation, but rather by carbonation that was added to still wine. We were far more impressed with the Rustico Nino Franco’s Prosecco di Valdobbiadene ($11). We enjoyed this Prosecco because of its creaminess and oaky flavors, and pear notes. In the flute the bubbles were smaller than the first Prosecco we tried. Most sparkling wine in Italy is produced by the “Charmat” (pronounced kray-MAHN) method. According to Tom Hanna, a wine consultant at Addy Bassin’s Macarthur Beverages, unlike the traditional French method of bottle fermentation, this process takes place in pressurized stainless steel tanks. Since there are no cellar workers running around “riddling,” or hand-turning, the champagne bottles, it’s more economical for the consumer. Nino Franco is a much-revered character in Italy. There is a famous aperitif named after him that is served at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Seaview Winery, located in Australia’s McLaren Vale, creates their 1998 Brut ($8) by the M�thode champenoise. We were split in our opinions of this bottle. I was part of the group that would highly recommend this sparkler as an accompaniment to say, three cream St. Andr� cheeses. I thought it had delightfully toasty almond and citrus and oaky flavors. Yet others found it flat-tasting and acidic. I would definitely try this again. The purchase of the kosher champagne did beg the question: What makes it kosher? Apparently, there are two leading kosher champagnes available. I researched the Abarbanel Cremant D’Alsace Brut White Sparkling Wine ($15) that, while imported from France, is owned and operated by a Sephardic Jewish family based in Cedarhurst, N.Y. To qualify as kosher, the grapes and the juice are handled under strict rabbinical supervision, and only by Sabbath-observant Jews. The yeasts used during the fermentation process must be certified as kosher, and the whole caboodle is flash-pasteurized. Suffice it to say that most of the bottle is still in my fridge. On the upside, it had small bubbles and was creamy and toasty. On the downside, it had a cloyingly sweet fruit taste and was overly acidic. While not an all around crowd-pleaser, it does fill a niche, and I’d choose it over the Korbel or Cooks any day. Hands down, the most fun bubbly we sampled was the Aussie Hardy’s Sparkling Shiraz ($20). Hardy’s has been around since 1853 in McLaren Vale. It is as ubiquitous as Budweiser and produces some good products. At 13.7 percent alcohol, this sparkling wine packs a punch. It also delivers everything that is delicious about shiraz: a wonderful berry bouquet, deep rich fruit, and velvety oak flavors. We drank up its tiny red bubbles and called it a night. Elisabeth Frater is the co-author of a wine-inspired online novel, “A Red With Legs,” at http://www.darkwoman.com.

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