- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Corks are popping all over town. People open more sparkling wines and champagnes during the holidays than at any other time of the year. It’s the season for bubbles.

Yet perhaps because many people don’t drink sparkling beverages in other seasons, buying bubbly sometimes proves stressful. Even experienced wine shoppers can get confused about what to choose and how much to spend. Here, then, are answers to some frequently asked sparkling-wine questions. They should help ensure that the wines you select this year are right for you.

Do I have to buy real champagne? In a word, no. Excellent sparkling wines are made in many places outside France’s Champagne region, and most cost significantly less than true champagne. Still, especially when it comes to dry, or “brut,” bubbly, champagne continues to set the international standard. Nothing else tastes quite like it.

• Why is champagne so expensive? Simple consumer demand. People all over the world want the stuff and are prepared to shell out plenty of euros, rubbles, yen and, of course, dollars for it.

Are there any values in champagne? Yes, especially at this time of year, when many stores slash prices. With comparison shopping, you can find a bottle of champagne that ordinarily sells for $50 on sale for $40 or less.

Most champagnes are non-vintage blends that, with full retail markup, cost $35 to $60. On the less expensive side of that range, wines worth trying include Henri Abele, Ayala, Duval-Leroy, Montaudon, Mumm Cordon Rouge and Nicolas Feuillatte. I saw the last of these advertised for just $26 by more than one Washington shop earlier this week.

Almost all champagne producers or houses make top-of-the-line prestige wines. These can be delicious but cannot be said to offer value. Yet the same producers also make vintage-dated champagnes. When coming from strong years, they can offer much the same quality as the prestige bottles while costing much less.

For example, both Moet et Chandon’s prestige Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame cost $150, while the same producers’ vintage offerings sell for $60 to $70. Even better, Louis Roederer’s famous Cristal will set you back $250, but Roederer’s 2002 Blanc de Blancs, which is every bit as fine a wine, comes in at less than $80. In short, when they’re from good vintages such as 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002, vintage-dated non-prestige wines are the best values in champagne.

We’re in a recession. What about other, less expensive wines? You can find good champagne-styled brut bubblies, meaning dry wines made with the same grapes and with the same method, for less than $25. That’s assuming full markup, but because many stores discount these wines, too, it pays to shop around.

In the American marketplace, some of the best come from California. Producers to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa, Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger Cellars. Looking further afield, a very tasty value in this style comes from New Zealand and goes under the Lindauer label. It will set you back all of $10.

Brut cavas from Penedes in Spain are made mostly with local grapes such as macabeo and parellada (rather than chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier as in champagne) but with the same method. They tend to taste slightly earthy, but good examples offer fine value. Look for Segura Viudas Estate’s Aria and Reserva. Both cost $10 or less.

Are all good sparklers “brut”? Absolutely not. Many fine bubblies come in a slightly sweet (sometimes called “demi-sec” or, confusingly, “extra dry”) or fully sweet style. They can be delicious, particularly if served with dessert. Brut sparklers are simply too dry to complement sweets - including, come June, wedding cake.

Both Piper-Heidsieck and Veuve Clicquot make fine demi-sec champagnes that sell for about $50, but you can find equally good wines for less. On the barely sweet end of the scale, try Italian Prosecco, especially wines from the villages of Conegliano or Valdobbiadene. On the more sugary side, stay in Italy but head west to the town of Asti for Moscato d’Asti, a wine that smells of flowers and tastes of peaches. Don’t spend more than $20 for either of these.

Finally, if you are looking for something deliciously different, try sparkling red Brachetto d’Acqui, also from Piedmont in Italy. Strawberry-sweet but balanced and harmonious, it’s the rare bubbly that pairs well with chocolate. Rosa Regale is a widely available brand, and a bottle will cost you about $20.

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