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Bubbles for when the wedding bells ring

Choosing a sparkling wine for your special day can be a frustrating, expensive process.  Jon Bonné sorts through the options.

One more item to tack on to the million or so already on your list of wedding to-dos: Pick the perfect bubbly.

For this most momentous of celebrations, the wine to toast the new bride and groom need not be true French Champagne — though you can justly make the argument that a special day deserves a special wine.

The wine you choose — like every detail of the big day — should reflect your personal style. A traditional bride might want to splurge on a selection from France’s most respected Champagne houses. A more modish reception might call for bottles of Spanish cava or domestic bubbles.

Some considerations:

(1)  Know your audience.  Are you inviting a bunch of wine snobs, or will your guests be content with a solid $8 bottle? 

“You don’t want to underestimate your friends, but you also don’t want to overestimate them and blow your budget,” says wine consultant and former Spago Beverly Hills sommelier Bonnie Graves.

If you don't hang with a wine crowd, no need to spend extra cash on fancy stuff — unless it’s important to you personally, or you want to share a special wine experience on your special day.

Graves spent spent months selecting wines for her own Sept. 2004 wedding, knowing her guests expected transcendent wine selections: “We spent more money on that then we did on my dress.”

(2) Will they see the bottle? It may seem trivial, but your decision really hinges on this: Will those flutes of sparkling wine be poured behind the scenes (“pre-poured”) and handed out, or will they be poured at the table or bar?

If your guests won't ever see the bottles, there’s frankly no reason to spend extra. No need to be cheap, either, but plenty of tasty wines can be found for under $15 a bottle (our picks below). Given the skyrocketing cost of weddings, why splurge on something that won’t leave an impression?

If, on the other hand, you intend to have the staff pour wine at the table (often the classier option, if also a pricier one), your wine choices will most certainly make a statement — at least among folks who know their wine.

(3) Don’t overdo it.  A sparkler for toasting should be memorable, but it shouldn't be a monster wine. “The most profound and complex wine is not always the right wine for the occasion,” says Gary Westby, Champagne buyer for K&L Wines in Redwood City, Calif. “The kind of thing you’d want for you and your new bride when you’re sitting down on your honeymoon and getting into a bottle is different from what you want for the toast.”

Be realistic about the setting: Your guests are eating and drinking, with music and dancing and lots of chatter. Is it truly the moment for blow-you-away bubbles? Vintage Champagne can sit on its lees and in bottle for five years or more, developing richness and texture; those are welcome qualities for a special dinner, less so for a wedding-day bash.

Save the top-end stuff for a small party later on.

(4) Know your options. Frankly, wedding venues and caterers make lots of money on liquor — often by purchasing cost-effective labels (that’s my nice way of saying bad wine) and charging a premium.

Before you sign any contract, get specifics about what you'll be served. Ask to taste. You may be told that you can’t bring in the wines you want; that might sometimes be true, but you’re within your rights to ask for your own selections and pay a per-bottle corkage fee. Don’t settle for wine you don’t want.

“Check out all their policies ahead of time,” Graves says.

She should know. For her own wedding, she not only haggled with staff at Utah’s Sundance resort but had to convince the state's hard-nosed liquor commission to let her bring in her wine.

Decide whether you want bubbly available throughout the reception, or just for the toast.  Be clear with the caterer and staff about ground rules for pouring. For the toast, plan to serve 6-8 people with each bottle.

(5) Taste beforehand. If you can purchase your own wine, choose a retailer you trust and and ask for their help in selecting several options to try. Ask your friends to help.

Be clear about your spending limits when you begin the process.  Westby served true Champagne at his own wedding — but with only 45 guests, he didn’t bust his budget. Raise that to 300 people and unless Diddy's on your speed dial, you’ll probably be dizzy from seeing that many zeroes. (Though not if you've started pricing floral arrangements.)

Don’t be afraid to set limits. “The one thing I think is really important is to have somebody who will respect your price range,” Westby says.

The perfect bottle lies at the crossroads of your budget and your personal style, just like your dress, your flowers or the band. All wines we selected are non-vintage (NV), which simply means they’re a blend of grapes from several different years.

Big Names
Nothing is more classic than true Champagne, which must be produced according to traditional methods in France’s Champagne region. (Its vintners waged a long and effective campaign to prevent anyone else from using their name.)

The temptation is usually to gravitate toward big names like Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon, which will be familiar and popular with guests. 

Resist. Other large — but less ubiquitous — Champagne houses offer far better deals for the money, and are just as likely to impress. For her own guests, Graves poured the Nicolas Feuillatte brut (Pasternak Wine Imports, $24), one of the best deals available.

For a few dollars more, you can’t go wrong with three old classics. We were equally impressed with the Pol Roger brut (Frederick Wildman & Sons, $32),the Deutz brut Classic (Maisons Marques & Domaines , $32) and the Gosset Excellence brut (Palm Bay Imports, $35), all wines with storied histories and impeccable style. Pol Roger is more bright and floral, with a delicate toasted note and a zesty freshness; the Gosset is deep and bready, with hints of fig and melon and a rich, deep texture; the Deutz is also on the heavier side, though with more citrus in the mix. (Be aware: Retail prices vary widely on all three.)

Grower Champagnes
Want to give your guests a real treat, even your wine-geek pals?  Major Champagne houses, like those above, buy grapes from numerous sources and blend the wines to achieve a house style; grower Champagnes are made in small amounts by a single vintner. (You can distinguish them by the small-type code on the front label; larger houses use an “NM” designation; grower Champagnes begin with a “RM” mark, or more rarely, a “SR.”)

The tricky bit? Most local markets carry just a few of these small-batch bubblies.

We’ve been partial to the Egly-Ouriet brut Tradition (North Berkeley Imports, $37) — quintessentially rich and elegant, though hard to track down. The Diebolt-Vallois brut Tradition (Martine’s Wines, $35) bursts with melon and lemon, though may be too sharp for some. K&L’s Westby, who imports his own grower Champagnes, suggests his Franck Bonville brut blanc de bancs ($24) and Tarlant NV brut Reserve ($27), both of which are relative bargains.

Outside France
Good bubbles can be found in nearly every winegrowing region. Let price be your guide.

We struggled to find Italian choices with adequate finesse and depth to properly commemorate the special occasion; most worthy choices came with price tags as great as true Champagne.  Ditto quality picks from Down Under.

Dollar for dollar, Spanish cava remains the best global bet.  A favorite find of late is Avinyó brut (De Maison Selections, $15), produced by the Nadal family in the Penedés region. It’s lighter than most Champenoise-style wines — most cava is — but has terrific bread and citrus in the mix.  Even under $10, perennial workhorses like Cristalino brut (CIV, $6) should more than suffice.

Staying at home
Qualitydomestic bubbly can be a fantastic alternative, but choose carefully. On the California side, we’re always partial to the Roederer Estate Anderson Valley brut ($17) and were also happily surprised this time by the Mumm Napa brut Prestige ($17), which is rich and yeasty, with more finesse than even Mumm’s basic French entry. (Most California bubbly is made by French firms.)

Perhaps the most unique entry hails from Spokane, Wash., where winemaker Michael Manz turns out true Champagne-style wines. His just-released Mountain Dome 1998 brut ($24) is richer and more luscious than his non-vintage brut ($14) — though both will undoubtedly give your guests something to murmur about.

On that note: If you’re going through all this trouble to choose, feel free to brag a bit. Westby suggests a small printed card at the bar that describes your special selection to guests.