Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

... and quite a bit to drink: champagne wishes do come true!

Grave Vine Market
Grave Vine Market (Photo By John Anderson)

It's that time of year again. Clinking glasses, slightly off-balance embraces, pledges of eternal friendship. The fuel for all this goodwill is champagne or its younger cousin, sparkling wine. During the past year, we've tasted dozens of bottles of sparkling wine, priced from $4.99 to $150 a bottle, all aimed at this one article. The difficult work is over. Here's what we found.

First, these wines deserve to be drunk year-round. For no good reason, and to the eternal chagrin of sparkling winemakers around the world, people bypass this perfectly wonderful wine 11 months a year. That's a mistake. As an apéritif, champagne is one of the best wines available. It encourages a moment of romance between two people or the start of a party for a crowd. But don't put it away when you sit down to eat. Try it with food. Champagne goes with more courses and more types of food than any other single wine. Try it with a salad, any light main course, or most desserts. It makes magic.

Our other discovery, and a happy one for the consumer, is that you don't have to spend a fortune to get good sparkling wine. In the recommendations below, you'll find several good wines in the $8-12 range, mostly from the U.S. and Italy. A good strategy for a large party is to start everyone off with some of the under-$20 wines. Then, if you are feeling flush from your year-end bonus, pick one or two bottles from the other lists, and make a show of presenting them to your guests. If it's a romantic twosome, pick your price range and have fun.

Don't forget some of the best sparkling wines and champagnes come from small producers with very limited production. Nothing beats a good relationship with a knowledgeable person in a good wine shop. They will usually be able to steer you to an unheard-of wine at a great price.

In the under-$20 range, America makes some of the best wines available. Gruet Blanc de Noir ($14) is one of the wine world's great bargains. Made in New Mexico by a French family, this wine can put a lot of others at double, even triple, its price to shame. Moving up the price ladder is another personal favorite, the Chandon Carneros Blanc de Noir ($18), a rich wine competitive with many French wines and a superb choice to have with food. Korbel Extra Dry ($9) is the Rodney Dangerfield of sparkling wines (no respect!), but it is generally delicious and well made, especially for the price.

The Italians typically use grapes that the French would turn their nose up at, but they have made several delicious wines. Zefiro Prosecco ($10) is a delicate, crispy, and dry wine that is great for an apéritif. Zardetto Prosecco ($10) is a bigger wine than the Zefiro. It's a superb match with rich, fried, or sautéed fish dishes. Italians also like sweet sparkling wines. One available everywhere is Tosti Asti Spumante ($10) -- a dessert wine filled with floral aromas and the perfect intro for someone who usually doesn't like wine. Another dessert wine, just as sweet but with less floral scent, is Banfi Brachetto ($18).

When you move up into the $20-40 range, the real thing -- French champagne -- is in your grasp. Several stores in town have discovered small champagne houses with superb wine at prices close to $20. Places like the Austin Wine Merchant, the Cellar, Central Market, Grape Vine Market, Twin Liquors, and Wiggy's all compete to find the value bottles that no one else has. Pick your favorite store, and go shopping.

Some of the larger champagne houses produce great wine at the low end (relatively speaking) of their price range. My two favorites in this category are Deutz Brut Classic ($36) and Ruinart Brut ($40). Both feature classic champagne aromas reminiscent of fresh-baked biscuits and good toast. But don't stop there. Delamotte Brut ($32) comes from a spectacular area of Champagne, features full and fruity flavors, and is quite a bargain. Veuve Clicquot ($32) is omnipresent during the holidays and is always good. Perrier-Jouet Brut NV ($33) is also easy to find and delicious with a toasty aroma. Roederer Brut Premier ($40) is a softer, gentler wine, good for sipping before dinner. After dinner, try Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial ($37), one of the few sweet champagnes.

As American sparkling wines have gotten better, they've also moved up in the price categories. While you can find lots of wine in this price range, I think you are generally better off buying French. There are a few exceptions. Pacific Echo Vintage Private Reserve Brut ($22) is a spectacular bottle of wine. The flavors are reminiscent of green apples; the bubbles are nice and small. Schramsberg Blanc de Noir ($30) is very clean with miniscule bubbles and the scent of pinot noir. Domaine Chandon Etoile Rosé ($35) is a heavier style of wine with a beautiful pink color. Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ($28) is complicated, oaky, and filled with dark fruit flavors.

Once you inure yourself to spending over $40 for a bottle, the world of luxury champagne opens up. We're talking punishing prices, but these are world-class wines made just for a special celebration. I've only tasted two American sparklers that I would recommend in this price group. Domaine Carneros le Reve ($50) is made by the French Taittinger family from grapes grown in one of the most beautiful vineyards in California. Le reve is French for "the dream," and this wine is a dream. It's also the best American sparkling wine I've tasted. My other choice in this price category for American wines would be Mumm DVX ($45) from Napa. Full of fruit but highly acidic, it really needs food to show it off. A plate of steamed shrimp would be perfect.

The French really own the over-$40 category. Any high-end wine shop will be able to show you several of these wines, and when you are spending this kind of money, it helps to have already tasted it. My recommendation is to get on the mailing lists of the wine shops mentioned above. Grape Vine Market and the Austin Wine Merchant are the two that most frequently offer free tastings of high-priced wines. I can't tell you that any of these wines are worth five to 10 times the cost of the Gruet Blanc de Noirs mentioned at the top -- in scoring terms, your extra $50-100 takes you from an 85 to a 95 -- but if you've got the money and the inclination, or if the celebration justifies it, these are some great wines.

Tied for my top choices would be Krug NV Grand Cuvee ($100) and the Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne la Belle ...poque ($120; the name is frequently shortened to "Fleur" based on the beautiful flower on the label). Though both of these wines are complex and near the apex of the winemaker's art, they are polar opposites. The Krug is oaky and filled with enough serious aromas to keep you guessing for hours. This is a massive, dominating wine. The Perrier-Jouet is delicate and refined, sort of a Melanie Wilkes to the Krug's Scarlet O'Hara.

Whatever you choose, remember to take a moment to savor the break of the delicate bubbles on your nose, the intricate aromas, and the feel of the wine exploding in your mouth. And have a happy 2003. end story

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