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A wide, wide world of sparkling wine

Last week we looked at great French bubblies that aren't quite Champagne. There are so many other great options, though, and if there ever was a time of year to consider sparkling wine, this is it.

Virtually every winemaking region in the world has developed some sort of sparkler. Some are wonderful, some are ... still evolving.

Consider buying a few this holiday season, if for no other reason than to sample something new as 2005 nears.

The trick is to find a great wine shop committed to stocking unusual options, one that wants to expand your wine horizons. "It's a lot like dessert wines, in that you just can't buy without talking to a retailer," says wine writer and master sommelier Doug Frost.

Unfortunately, many wine shops are severely understocked when it comes to obscure, affordable sparklers. But have that conversation. Start by explaining when and how you want to serve your wine.

"The first thing we do," says Roberto Rogness, general manager of Wine Expo in Santa Monica, Calif., "is pre-empt the whole process by asking them what they're serving for food."

I recently scoured local shops in Seattle and stocked up, then convened a panel for a global tasting tour.

Most wines in this United Nations of bubbly are made using the Champagne method, with two fermentations -- one to produce the still wine, and a second in the bottle to create bubbles with natural carbon dioxide. But some vary.  Italian moscato d'Asti, for example, is finished in sealed tanks before it goes into the bottle.

Wine back homeBefore we wander too far afield, remember that plenty of excellent sparklers are made on these shores.  California dominates, but great wines can be found in Michigan and Massachusetts as well.

With California options so well known, and with many beyond $20 a bottle, I don't want to dwell. But I'll note one: Gloria Ferrer NV brut ($18) was an enormous Thanksgiving hit this year, wooing even affirmed bubblyphobes with a fine mousse and delicate finish.

From the Northwest, Argyle continues to impress with its Willamette Valley brut ($19).  Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has its own popular sparklers, but the Washington option to track down is Mountain Dome. I've discussed winemaker Michael Manz before, and his NV brut ($12-15) is a great deal. If you can find his rare 1997 brut ($25), it's a unique treat with great delicacy and balance.

Equally offbeat is New Mexico's Gruet Winery. Gruet NV brut ($13) remains a perennial hit at my house, especially as food wine.  Not just my house. "Gruet remains on my short list," Frost says.

Once we crossed the border, our tasting results got even more interesting.

Delightful or 'disjointed'?We had high hopes for a wine from Argentina, but in one taster's words, it "kind of tastes like liver."  Another from South Africa had the right basic elements but otherwise was a mess.

We saw some promise to the north, including Blue Mountain brut ($19) from British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, which was tart, tangy and a decent match for cream sauce.

Some places are simply so well-known in the sparkling world that I left them off the tour.  Spain's version of Champagne, cava, falls into this category.  Cava is wonderful, but found everywhere nowadays. That said, the Cristalino NV brut ($6-8) remains a great option, especially if you're buying by the case.

Italy comes throughItaly would also fall into this category, but it provides some obscure options worth exploring.  Sparkling prosecco is always a hit, but like cava it has already scored its share of space in print. Plus, I think of prosecco as a summer wine. Rogness strongly demurs: "More than half the population lives below the Sun Belt line, and we drink prosecco every day here."

He's also a huge proponent of sparkling Italian reds like lambrusco or Lombardian sangue di Giuda, which are making a comeback after being sidelined for years because of plonk like Riunite. A big note of caution: choose carefully. Some stores still carry the '80s-era stuff, albeit with a layer of dust.

There are many other Italian options of varying quality.  Lombardy's Franciacorta appellation turns out great Champagne-style wines using traditional French grape varieties. We had high hopes for some Lessini durello from the Veneto, but said one taster, "There is very little taste in here."

Honestly, the can't-miss Italian option isn't obscure: moscato d'Asti -- not to be confused either with run-of-the-mill sparkling moscato or with the low-grade Asti spumante that helped tarnish Italian bubbly's rep.

True moscato d'Asti is carefully made and lightly sparkling, with both sweetness and acid.  It is also low in alcohol, helpful during the holiday season, and balanced enough to charm skeptics of both sweet and dry wines. "It's totally addictive," Frost says.

Up top, down underGermany's take on sparkling, sekt, is another area ripe for exploration -- and often made with just enough sweetness to appeal to diverse palates.

Sekt often is made from other countries' still wine, though some is made from German grapes, usually riesling.  The riesling sekts can be the most sublime, but also hard to find.

Henkell Trocken ($9) is a good introductory sekt and a nice apertif. We liked the lingering bubbles and hints of butterscotch, Fuji apples and "fluffy marshmallow spread."

Australia and New Zealand are also big on bubbly.  I've had lovely Aussie sparklers, but not much luck this year. Jacob's Creek brut ($9) won a few words of praise, but as one taster put it, "This is the wine that they serve at government parties."  Sparkling red shiraz is also making a nationwide splash; try it if you're feeling adventurous.

We did far better with the Kiwis, whose climate embraces classic French sparkling-wine grapes. Yet most New Zealand sparklers are just now arriving on these shores. One new contender, Lindauer brut ($10), showed nicely, including those classic light apple and lemon notes. Said one taster: "It's pretty smooth."

Clearly, sparkling wine has staked a worldwide claim.  Enjoy the trip.