Sparkling Wines

2008 is almost upon us, and the Kelly household is going to party. And party for many reasons: new babies, new engagements, newlyweds, and new friends. We haven't thrown a New Year's Eve bash in a few years. The disco ball needs a dusting; noisemakers need to be bought, as does the champagne. For the champagne, I need to get some recommendations before blindly buying.

First call went out to Matt Francke, owner of San Diego Wine Company. We started with terminology. "The difference between sparkling wine and champagne is that when you call something champagne, it literally has to come from the Champagne region of France," Francke explained. "Everything else is called sparkling wine."

Nonvintage on the bottle means that "there is no particular year that all the grapes were picked that are going into that bottling. The grapes could have been picked from a number of different years, and normally they are current vintages, current years like '06, '05, maybe back to '04 but most likely not."

And with regard to brut, or extra dry, "that refers to a kind of dryness level. Brut is considered dry. Wine is fermented dry, meaning there is no residual sugar. So the wine should not be sweet; it can still be fruity but won't be sweet. Extra dry is another designation that you see on Prosecco or even another sparkling wine or champagne. Extra dry means there is a little bit of residual sugar or sweetness." Other designations: demi-sec and sec-sec being on the sweetest end and brut on the dry end.

What makes the sparkling wine sparkling?

"When it comes to méthode champagnoise, or champagne method, a term meaning the wine is made imitating the way people in Champagne make their wines, the main difference is that the second fermentation that takes place in the bottle, as opposed to another method where they can do it in large vats. Each bottle of wine gets its own secondary fermentation, more of an individual attention."

I'm looking for some value buys; recommendations in the $10 range, $15 range, and over $20 range. In the $10 range, "One of our favorites is from Italy," Francke said. "It is a nonvintage brut called Prosecco; the producer is Puntoevirgola, an amazing value [ $7.99 a bottle]." Another bottom-dollar sparkling wine suggestion: "Stonehaven nonvintage Brut from southeastern Australia [ $6.99 ].

"I also have a Pinot Noir Sparkling Brut from Spain called Segura Viudas [ $6.99 ]; they call that bottling Aria. And being that it is a Pinot Noir, it is going look like a rosé and have a beautiful cherry-red color to it. It is dry, not sweet. Sometimes when people think rosé, they think sweet, but it is not sweet at all, it is dry."

For someone loyal to California, "We have the Gloria Ferrer Brut sparkling wine [ $10.95 ], definitely one of the best values of sparkling wines from California."

Any good values in the $10 to $15 range?

"We carry the Lucien Albrecht nonvintage Brut Rosé; its designation is Cremant d'Alsace [ $13.95 ], "Cremant" meaning it's a little bit lusher, richer style and "d'Alsace" meaning from Alsace. In my opinion, it drinks like a good $25 bottle from Champagne."

And Francke's over $20 value recommendation: the Piper Heidsieck nonvintage Brut from Champagne ( $21.95 ).

"According to legend, Champagne is where sparkling wine originated," Matt Tremble, store manager at the Mission Valley Beverages & More, told me. "You will see sparkling wines that are non champagnes that use the méthode champagnoise, a term to indicate that it is not just the $4 headache method of production, it is the actual French method."

And the $4 headache method of production: "It is called bulk process. There are a lot of unfermented sugars; it's not naturally carbonated, and that is where your cheap sparkling wines got the reputation for giving people headaches."

Tremble says there are a few wines outside of Champagne, France, that can use the name champagne. "Korbel uses the word champagne on their bottle; they got grandfathered in on that. The French sued Korbel when they started using that name. But because the French had never copyrighted the name, they lost the fight against Korbel and a couple of other sparkling-wine houses. And those houses ended up getting grandfathered in and were allowed to use the term California champagne."

As for recommendations: "Under $10 , in my opinion, the best values right now are coming out of Spain," said Tremble. "There is one called Cristalino Brut that is very tasty [ $7.99 ].

"The best things going in the $10 to $15 range are coming out of California. Some of your old-world sparkling and champagne houses set up shop here in California. One is produced by the French company Moet & Chandon, who make actual champagne, including but not limited to Dom Perignon. By far their most popular is their Chandon Brut [ $16.99 ]. It's definitely a more high-end taste. You'll find more complexities in it than you will in your under-tens. If you are looking at under-tens in sparkling wines and champagnes, you're looking for something that is quaffable, that doesn't have any flaws to it -- if it's supposed to be sweet, it isn't overly sweet. It isn't excessively effervescent or hardly effervescent at all. There's balance between the acidity and the alcohol. When you get up into that teens' range in sparkling wines, you start getting some reasonable nuances, subtleties to it."

And what if you want the genuine article, straight from Champagne?

"There is really nothing coming out of Champagne right now that is much under $30 . It's always been pricier stuff as compared to the non-champagne designation, and also the exchange rate right now is atrocious."

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