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The Grapevine: Excellent choices abound for celebratory bubblies

The landscape has never been better for lovers of sparkling wine. Consumers are finding more choices than ever. And there's wine of good quality to be found in nearly every price category.

I've tasted good bubbly this year from large and small companies and at prices from around $10 to well over $100. Sure, you're likely to get more complexity and finesse with a higher price tag, but if you just want a glass or two at midnight on New Year's Eve or you're pouring for a crowd, the less-expensive stuff will more than suffice.

First, let's get the terminology straight. Although current trade agreements with Europe still allow some U.S. producers to call their sparkling wine "champagne," true Champagne comes from the Champagne region east of Paris. Champagne undergoes two fermentations: The first converts sugar to alcohol; the second produces additional alcohol as well as the bubbles. In Champagne, that second fermentation takes place in the same bottle in which the wine is sold — a process known as methode champenoise. The best sparkling wines from other places — including some bubblies from California and the Spanish sparkling wine known as cava — are produced in this manner.

These are some of the highlights from my tastings of sparkling wines over the past six months, including some I sampled in Champagne in April. I've classified the wines according to suggested retail price, but some of them, particularly bottles in the $20-or-less category, are usually available this time of year at a considerable discount.

$20 or less

In this range, my favorite these days is Sonoma County's Gloria Ferrer. Both its non-vintage Blanc de Noirs ($20) and Brut ($20) offer a lot of flavor and finesse for the price. Similarly priced bubblies from two other big California producers — Domaine Chandon and Mumm Napa — are good, but I think they're a notch below Gloria Ferrer. At $12 or less, the wines from Domaine Ste. Michelle in Washington are outstanding values, especially the non-vintage Brut and Blanc de Blancs.

Another option for lower-priced bubbly is Spanish cava, a type of wine dominated here by Freixenet. While these wines are OK, they tend to have a dull quality that's very different from Champagne or most California bubblies because of the grapes that are used. One of the best of the widely available cavas is Segura Viudas (about $10).

$20.01 to $50

There are some excellent California wines in this range, as well as good bottlings from Champagne.

Some of my favorite sparkling wines are from Roederer Estate in the

Anderson Valley. The non-vintage Brut ($24) is delicate and citrusy (and can often be found for less than $20), while the non-vintage Brut Rose ($27) is pretty and round, with a fine texture. Schramsberg in the Napa Valley makes fine fizz, such as the elegant 2002 Blanc de Blancs ($34.50) and the racy 2000 Blanc de Noirs ($34.50).

Gloria Ferrer has some terrific wines in this range, too. The 1996 Carneros

Cuvée ($50) is delicious — rich and creamy, with lovely fruit and a long finish. The 1997 Royal Cuvée Brut ($28) is also very good, with its crisp fruit and a slightly yeasty note. From Iron Horse in Sonoma County, my favorites are the refreshing 2001 Classic Vintage Brut ($30) and the elegant, slightly toasty 1998 Blanc de Blancs ($34).

As for Champagne, you can buy mass-produced bubbles from producers like Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, but I think there are more interesting choices.

At $50, the non-vintage Deutz Brut Classic is round and ripe with white fruit and a hint of almond. Philipponnat has a pair of Champagnes that aren't cheap but offer very good value: the pretty, fresh non-vintage Royale

Reserve ($40) and the rich, minerally non-vintage

Reserve Rose ($48).

There are also some lovely "grower Champagnes," produced by small wineries that grow all their own fruit. The non-vintage Gaston

Chiquet Tradition Brut

Premier Cru ($40) displays round fruit, some toastiness and lovely minerality. From Pierre Gimmonet & Fils, there's the non-vintage Cuis Premier Cru Brut ($42.50), a fresh, crisp, minerally bubbly with citrus and white peach flavors.

Over $50

From California, Schramsberg's top wine is the 1999 J Schram ($90), which offers a combination of bright fruit and rich toastiness. Iron Horse produces the 1996 Blanc de Blancs LD ($60), which displays round fruit on the entry, along with some toasty and minerally notes.

But when you get into the pricey stuff, most of the best bottles are Champagne.

Vilmart & Cie, a grower Champagne house, produces the delicious 1998 Coeur de Cuvée ($104), a rich, round wine with yeasty flavors of brioche, white peach and mineral and a firm core of zippy acid.

Fans of rich, complex Champagne won't be disappointed by the wines from Bollinger. The non-vintage Special Cuvée ($56) is full-bodied and toasty, with creamy white peach flavors. The 1997 La Grande Année ($120) is rich and weighty, while the 1995 RD Extra Brut ($190) is even more powerful and complex. I also like the top wines of Deutz, including the 1998 Cuvée William Deutz ($158), which is aromatic and rich with a nice fleshiness.

And if you are looking for a huge splurge to ring in the new year, you can't do much better than the 1996 Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs ($300), a wine that's rich yet racy, with lovely texture and an incredibly long finish.

Here's to 2007!


Laurie Daniel writes a weekly column on wine. E-mail her at ldaniel@earthlink.net.
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