The Italians were particularly incensed by headlines, that, like The Daily Post in Wales, cautioned that prosecco “could be rotting your teeth, warn experts.”
The article added for good measure, “The popular tipple is causing a rather horrifying dental issue being dubbed ‘prosecco smile.’ ”
In its salvo, The Guardian gave six reasons to give up prosecco, including the claim that hangovers caused by the drink “have a particular quality, like having your eyeballs removed and replaced by pear drops. I do not like that.”
Who would? The gauntlet was thrown. Italian officials responded.
Maurizio Martina, the agriculture minister, fired back on Twitter: “Dear Guardian, tell the truth — prosecco makes British people smile, too! Stop fake news, please.” The tweet was later removed.
Luca Zaia, president of Veneto, the region that is Italy’s largest prosecco producer, said, “It’s nonsense — like saying that Sacher torte causes a tummy ache.”
“The notion that prosecco takes away your smile makes me laugh,” he added, noting that his region was full of “prosecco-drinking ultra-centenarians without a cavity.”
But in a conciliatory note, he added, “The British are our friends; they show it not just as prosecco consumers, but also as visitors to the prosecco territories” in Veneto. In a telephone interview, he said it was the second-most-popular destination for visitors from the United Kingdom after Tuscany.
Italians wondered why their bubbly had been singled out. Italian newspapers sought signs of conspiracies between British dentists and local brewers.
“Why are the bubbles of the Veneto and Fruili Venezia Giulia more damaging than the French bubbles in Champagne, or even those that the British have been producing for some time in Kent?” the newspaper Corriere della Sera asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but this is no ordinary dust-up. Prosecco became an unlikely issue in Britain’s pending divorce from the European Union.
“In a moment of autarchic vision leading to Brexit, Great Britain can do nothing more than try to limit imports and increase the consumption, in this case, of English sparkling wines,” Corriere della Sera wrote.
Boris Johnson, the British foreign minister, tossed the first prosecco bomb last year, when he told the Italian economic development minister that Italy would give Britain access to the bloc’s single market because “you don’t want to lose prosecco exports.”
The Italian minister, Carlo Calenda, retorted in an interview on Bloomberg TV: “O.K., you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.”
In a few years, Britain has become Italy’s biggest prosecco client, spending 366 million euros, or about $434 million, on the sparkling wine in 2016, according to the Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti, a 33 percent increase over the previous year.
What remains unclear is why the British media took prosecco potshots at this particular moment. Innocente Nardi, president of the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore consortium, noted in a statement that no hard data had been offered to support the British claims: “No scientific research is cited.”
Instead, the British media liberally quoted warnings from two dentists. One, Prof. Damien Walmsley, the scientific adviser for the British Dental Association, said, “Prosecco offers a triple whammy of carbonation, sweetness and alcohol, which can put your teeth at risk, leading to sensitivity and enamel erosion.”
With “about one teaspoon of sugar per flute” and its acidity, he said, prosecco, like colas, “can present a clear and present danger to oral health.”
The British media also quoted Dr. Mervyn Druian of the London Centre for Cosmetic Dentistry, who later admitted in a telephone interview to being a bit perplexed. “With politics being what it is, people thought I was taking a swipe at the Brexit situation, which is crazy,” he said.
Dr. Druian said that any acidic drink — like colas, orange juice or wine — can damage tooth enamel. He said that in his previous interview he had suggested that people should wait at least an hour to brush their teeth after drinking “so that the enamel can mineralize” — but that didn’t make the news.
After the brouhaha, Professor Walmsley revised his concerns, noting: “News of British dentists declaring war on Italian prosecco has been greatly exaggerated.” The same message, he said, had been issued in the past for “American soft drinks, French Champagne or homegrown smoothies.”
In a statement, the British Dental Association tried to distance itself from the controversy and “categorically denied” suggestions from leading Italian political figures and news outlets that it was peddling “fake news” or seeking to help the British drinks industry by undermining Italian vintners.”
It urged consumers to have “greater awareness of the impact all drinks can have on oral health.”
After all, what was on the menu of most recent Christmas party held by the Lincoln Section of the British Dental Association? Prosecco, of course.