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A case full of choices for New Year's bubbly

Your options are endless — and that's a good thing. Jon Bonné considers how to make the right pick

With the exception of a romantic blip in February, sparkling wine's selling season is essentially one month long — and we’re smack in the middle of the frenzy right now.

After all, Champagne and its siblings are celebration wines, and this is a celebration time of year.  Retailers are flooding the shelves with their best stuff right now and prices are being slashed, so it’s time for savvy bubbly lovers to buy in bulk. Stock up for the coming months.

I’ve visited the topic of the bubbles several times in 2005, so on the verge of the new year, here’s a good opportunity to recap some top picks and buying strategies.

1) Know your audience: Are you popping corks at an intimate dinner party or will you be passing the bottle through the crowd as you huddle to watch fireworks?

There are sparklers made for every circumstance and budget, so don’t overdo it.  If your friends are all about Fritos and onion dip, you probably can skip the vintage Krug and uncork a nice $8 bottle of Spanish cava. (Unless that onion dip is spiked with osetra caviar.)

As a rule of thumb, it’s worth saving true Champagne for a small party of good friends or maybe a romantic evening for two. Social graces be damned:  If you’re gathering with a crowd, you’ll cringe watching random strangers help themselves to your bottle of Piper-Hiedsieck like it was ginger ale — unless you’re Jay-Z, in which case, let the Cristal flow.

Plenty of good bubbles fall into the “party wine” category, whose primary virtue is that it tastes more expensive than it is.

2) The big names: More than any other wine region, Champagne has leveraged the marketing power (and cash) of its biggest corporate citizens. As a result, few good wines have as much brand presence and prestige. If you're in the game to impress your hosts or guests, these are the wines for you.

But fame and quality are two different things.  Major Champagne houses craft their workhorse wines to fit well-established house styles, attempting to ensure that their end product tastes the same from batch to batch, year to year. (Attempting, but not always achieving, as I .) Some are delightful; others are duds.

Among major labels, I'll stick by my September . These non-vintage efforts vary in their styles, but all should please: Gosset brut (Palm Bay Imports, $32);  Pol Roger brut Réserve (Frederick Wildman & Sons, $32); Deutz brut Classic (Maisons Marques & Domaines , $32); and Nicolas Feuillatte brut (Pasternak Wine Imports, $24).

On the other end, continuing to hold the worst value-for-money record I can find is Veuve Clicquot’s ubiquitous “Yellow Label” Brut (Clicquot Inc., $35) — not particularly a bad Champagne, but absolutely not worth the money and floating on a sea of promotional fizz.

3) The indie scene: Grower Champagnes, so called because they’re made by individual winegrowers rather than a large winery that buys much of its grapes, are still the most exhilarating sector of the Champagne business.

They may not always reach the heights (or consistency) of the top names, but they’re usually a great value and always a special treat — doubly so at a holiday party, where an obscure bottle of bubbly can itself become a conversation starter. (Take note of that, single folks.)

Two grower Champagnes from our fall tasting stood out as truly exceptional: the Egly-Ouriet brut Tradition (North Berkeley Imports, $37) and Franck Bonville brut blanc de bancs (Premier Wine Company, $24), and I’ll add two others to the list: the Larmandier-Bernier brut Premier Cru “Vertus” (Mickael Skurnik Wines, $32) and the Launois brut blanc de blancs Cuvée Reserve (Premier Wine Co., $26). The Launois was on my Dec. 13 list of for 2005.

And how do you tell a grower Champagne from the big boys?  Each bottle of Champagne comes with a code stamped on the the front label in tiny print.  Grower Champagnes begin with an “RM” (or more rarely an “SR”), while larger houses use an “NM.” It can be tough to find outside major cities, but part of the fun is in the hunt.

4) A fizz-filled world: Spanish cava, Italian prosecco, German sekt — name a wine region and you’ll find bubbly there.  These are go-to wines for celebrations like New Year’s, bottles to uncork in the hours before the big toast.

As for Spain, my favorite cava of 2005 remains the Avinyó brut (De Maison Selections, $15), though great options abound $8 and under.

But what’s been truly impressive this year is the quality of French sparklers made elsewhere than Champagne — something I’ve been tracking closely since our of non-Champagne French bubbly.

Two in particular are worthy of note from recent months: The Allimant-Laugner crémant d’Alsace rosé (Vigneron Imports, $19), an all-pinot noir Alsatian effort, and the Francois Pinon Vouvray brut (Louis/Dressner, $13), a bone-dry sparkling Loire Valley chenin blanc that’s my own personal pick for pre-midnight New Year’s bubbles this year.

5) Staying at home: Domestic sparklers remain a great option too, especially if the true Champagne price tags scare you away. If you're seeking to impress your hosts, skip the Korbel and seek out some smaller labels.

From California, the best picks remain the Roederer Estate Anderson Valley brut ($17) and Gloria Ferrer Carneros brut ($18), while Schramsberg has been showing well lately and Sonoma’s J Vineyards continues its roll.

In the Northwest, there's Oregon’s Argyle Winery and Washington’s Mountain Dome. And though I’m a perennial fan of their blanc de noirs, New Mexico’s Gruet Winery offered up a dazzling brut rosé ($14) this year that’s both delicate and vibrant, a sheer pleasure.

6) Decoding the lingo:  Finally, how about a quick refresher on Champagne terminology?

  • Brut: The driest (least sweet) of sparkling wine styles. Very little, or no, extra sugar is added during the winemaking process.
  • Extra dry: Actually not dry at all. Sweeter than brut because more sugar's added.
  • Blanc de blancs: White wine grapes (usually chardonnay) made into white sparkling wine.
  • Blanc de noirs: Sparkling wine made entirely from red grapes, almost always pinot noir or pinot meunier, or some combo of the two. Despite the name, blanc de noirs are often white in color — and aren’t the same as rosé sparklers, which are usually made from red grapes whose juice is allowed to soak up more color from the grape skins.
  • Champagne: New trade regulations will require any European wine labeled “Champagne” to come from that region of France.  It’s a guarantee of authenticity, though not necessarily of quality. Some domestic producers have retained use of the word, though they must list where it comes from (hence “California Champagne”) and most quality wineries have long since dropped the practice.
  • Méthode Champenoise: Also known as “Méthode Traditionelle” or “Champagne Method,” it signifies that a wine was made using the multiple fermentations and lengthy handling that are decreed by law in Champagne. (The bubbles come from a second fermentation in the bottle.) Cheaper wines might be made using the Charmat method, used to carbonate wine in bulk tanks.
  • Non-Vintage (NV): Indicates that the wine was made using grapes from several vintages. The vast majority of sparkling wine is made by blending lots from multiple years to create a style that’s pleasing and consistent. Wine from a single vintage isn't always better, simply rarer.