The year's best champagnes and sparkling wines

Illustration By Jason Stout

Consumers drink about 90% of sparkling wine between Christmas and Jan. 2. That's a shame, because champagne is one of the world's great wines and deserves to be enjoyed year-round. Just think of all those times you could have been enjoying it with sushi or roast chicken or shrimps on the barbie.

That being said, one of the best times to buy champagne or sparkling wines is now. Every store in town has them on sale, with some of the prices just barely above wholesale. Plus, with the arrival in Austin of the huge buying power that places like Spec's, World Market, and Costco have, you can sometimes find the wines at cheaper than the normal wholesale.

I know there are a number of you who won't drink any sparkling wine because of a terrible memory of a morning in the past when you woke up with a skull-exploding headache and a taste in your mouth like you had licked all the ashtrays clean at the Cigar Extravaganza. You blame it on that sparkling wine you had at your best friend's wedding, and you're probably right. But don't blame champagne. Your friend probably bought the champagne's bizarro world cousin: carbonated wine.

Winemakers use three ways to get bubbles into their wine. The cheapest, and by far the worst, is to take an inferior sweet wine, and inject gas in the exact same way Coke and Dr Pepper get their bubbles. This is the dreaded carbonated wine. Avoid it if you value your brain cells. How do you tell if it's carbonated? Well, having a trusted wine expert at a store you have confidence in is your best bet. But if you are flying solo, here's the secret. Look at the label carefully, and if you don't see Charmat, méthode champenoise, méthode traditionelle, or champagne on the label, it's most likely carbonated.

You can't always use price as a guideline because many of the best sub-$10-a-bottle sparklers are made with one of the two better methods. The gold standard is méthode champenoise (the Spaniards call it método tradicional). This is the term winemakers use to let you know they use the same methods as the winemakers in Champagne. Of course, if it's from the Champagne area of eastern France, then it is, by definition, a méthode champenoise and isn't required to say anything more on its label.

The Champenois make their wine by fermenting an acidic, young wine and then adding a dosage of sugar and other ingredients and some more yeast. They seal the bottles tight, and since the carbon dioxide produced by the sugar and yeast has nowhere to go, the wine develops bubbles. There is a lot of handwork that goes along with the process, and the resultant champagne has to age at the winery, since tradition has it that no wine will be released until it has reached its prime. These steps make champagne one of the most expensive wines for a company to produce.

A less expensive method, but still a good one in the right winemaker's hands, is Charmat. Here, a winemaker goes through the same process of dosing a wine with sugar and yeast and letting it ferment under pressure. The difference is that, whereas the Champenois do it in the bottle you eventually buy, the Charmat producers do it in a huge pressurized tank. Given the slew of great wines available using méthode champenoise, the only reason to select a Charmat process wine is if your favorite wine seller says it's better than anything else in its price range.

So, after tasting an inordinate amount of champagne and méthode-champenoise wines this year – and without a headache, thank you very much – here are a few wines that took my mind off bad rock. Listed by price:

Cristalino Brut Rosé Cava ($9) is a méthode traditionelle wine made of pinot noir (60%) and Trepat (40%). The pinot flavor dominates giving this gorgeous pink wine a strawberry aroma. The bubbles are a bit large, but the wine goes down very smoothly, especially for the price.

Gruet Blanc de Noirs ($12), from New Mexico of all places, is a perennial best buy. It has a richness and toasty elegance capable of embarrassing a lot of wines at twice the price. This is a no-brainer recommendation. It is one of the wine world's greatest bargains.

Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($17) is a great food wine, one worth having with a holiday dinner. There is just a hint of vanilla, with a flavor reminiscent of Granny Smith apples, and nice, small bubbles.

Nicolas Feuillatte Rosé ($30) is almost as dependable a recommendation as the Gruet. Take a deep whiff, and you'll get knock-out strawberry and raspberry aromas. There's also plenty of tiny bubbles to tickle your nose.

Taittinger Brut La Française ($33) is a step up from the prior wines. It is more quietly elegant, the Nick Drake of these champagnes. It has ultrafine bubbles that feel creamy in your mouth and very subtle aromas of toast and citrus. This is the wine for a quiet conversation.

Bollinger Brut Special Cuvée ($45) is my favorite sparkling wine, regardless of price. Mostly pinot noir, and very dry, this wine is consistently the wine for people who like their champagnes toasty and with bubbles that are just slightly aggressive in cleansing your palate. In gender terms, this is the male to the Taittinger female.

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs ($50). The single greatest champagne I've ever had was a 1990 Dom Ruinart Rosé, but until I discovered this wine at the sommelier's conference, I really didn't pay much attention to the rest of the Ruinart line. For chardonnay lovers, this is the holy grail of champagnes under $100. You want lively flavors, fine and endless bubbles, and cleansing acidity? It's all here.

From these wines, you have to go over $100 for any substantial increase in quality. If you're willing to spend that much, I highly recommend the 1996 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne ($120) for a 100% chardonnay, or the 2002 Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque Fleur De Champagne Rosé ($195) with its touch of pinot skin contact to give it color. Both are exquisite, elegant wines that reward your total attention. At these prices, don't quaff; sip, analyze, and enjoy. end story

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