Popping the cork

When I was a child, no holiday table was complete without a bottle of wine with a foil-wrapped cork, a pop and a sparkle. Often, it was Paul Masson Crackling Rosé (yes, like the Neil Diamond song), pink and pétillant. On New Year's Eve, it was giant bottles of golden Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante. My parents were gin drinkers with no knowledge of wine, and my mother confesses that they made their choices based on the recommendation of someone at the local liquor store (it wasn't a "wine shop"). And even though my sister and I were probably the only ones who really liked the sweet, fizzy sparklers, they were a mandatory holiday purchase. (I should remember the buzz from the one glass we were allowed to sip, but perhaps it's telling that I don't.) Sparkling wine suggested something special and sophisticated, something out of the ordinary, something required on Christmas as much as cookies for Santa and roast beef for dinner.

I, like much of the drinking public, still buy into the celebratory specialness of sparkling wine, and in the years I worked in a wine shop, I came to recognize the sheepish looks that accompanied folks standing in the aisle bewildered by choice before buying the annual bottle of Cook's or Korbel or Asti out of habit. While choosing any wine can be overwhelming, it seems that sparkling wine confuses the most. People think you have to pay a lot for bubbles, that it's all called champagne, that it's always sweet, that it will always give you a headache (that depends on how much you drink, folks). And so, my holiday gift to you: a sparkling wine primer in four easy steps. Cheers.

No. 1: Champagne is not a generic term for sparkling wine.

Some basics: Champagne, the wine, is named for Champagne, the region in northeast France where the wine is made. Only wine made in Champagne may be technically called champagne; everything else is sparkling wine. Champagne is made from either chardonnay or pinot noir grapes or a blend of both, and may be white or rosé, dry or sweet. Bottles marked "brut" are dry; "extra dry" has some sweetness to it, and "demi-sec" is full-blown fizzy nectar.

Unlike most still wines, much champagne is labeled NV (non-vintage) and only bears vintage dates in years when harvest conditions are judged to be extraordinary; otherwise, each champagne producer blends the current year's harvest with wine from previous years to create their signature style, which can be elegant, lean and racy like Taittinger, or bold and biscuity like Bollinger. This doesn't mean that non-vintage bottles aren't delicious, but it does mean that you'll pay more for vintage or high-end champagne because there's less of it. Louis Roederer Brut NV can run around $40, while their Cristal can be well over $200 a bottle.

Aside from showing more complex flavors than other sparkling wine — champagnes can show a spectrum of notes, from apples and lemons to toasted nuts to yeasty brioche — vintage champagnes also age well.

Try: Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee NV ($65), Louis Roederer Brut NV ($40), Champagne Taittinger Brut ($35). (All prices are estimates and may vary from store to store.)

No. 2: It doesn't have to be champagne, or expensive, to be delicious.

Dry sparkling wine made from a variety of grapes is produced all over the world, and while the flavors are more straightforward — more clean citrus-and-apple than yeasty and complex — they offer plenty of delicious and affordable choices. From Italy, try prosecco. In Spain, the sparkler is cava. In many regions of France, you'll find bubbly wines labeled "crémant" (e.g., Crémant d'Alsace) made from regional grapes like riesling. Many American producers, such as Domaine Carneros and Roederer Estate, employ the classic méthode champenoise to make excellent bubblies, and you'll also find chardonnay-based sparklers coming from Australia.

Try: Zardetto Prosecco ($15), 1+1=3 Cava Brut ($15), Albert Mann Crémant d'Alsace Brut ($22), Roederer Estate Brut NV Anderson Valley ($20), Graham Beck Brut ($17).

No. 3: Sparkling wine can be pink or red as well as white.

White, red, rosé; all is possible with sparkling wine. Reds are notably juicy, though with a few notable exceptions, most red sparklers are sweet (see below). But Australia is producing dry sparkling shiraz that's as festive (and gorgeous) as its white counterparts, and traditional Italian Lambrusco is frizzante (slightly less fizzy than spumante), dry and can be a refreshing, funky pour at a table. Look for rosé cavas with tart berry overtones, as well as quality dry rosés from Oregon, California and even New Mexico.

Try: The Chook Sparkling Shiraz ($18), Gelsomina Lambrusco Mantovano ($13), Mont Marcal Cava Rosé ($18), Argyle Brut Rosé ($57), Gruet Rosé ($15).

No. 4: Sweet is OK.

Let's say it up front: There is no shame in liking sweet bubbles. They can be refreshing, pretty and delicate, and they pair better with desserts than dry wine. And if you scan the rows of demi-sec champagne in your wine shop, you'll also immediately learn that sweet does not equal cheap.

The Italians excel at light, sweet bubblies, both white and red. Moscato d'Asti, a white sparkler, is low in alcohol, light and frothy, with the essence of white flowers and honeysuckle. (A colleague once commented that this is what angels must drink.) Sweet sparkling Italian reds include Brachetto d'Acqui from the Piedmont as well as sparkling versions of the malvasia grape. Gruet Winery in New Mexico makes fine, affordable sparklers, including a demi-sec.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Demi-Sec ($50), Moët and Chandon Nectar Imperial ($50), 2008 Saracco Moscato d'Asti ($17), Icardi Brachetto ($15), La Sera Malvasia ($16), Gruet Demi-Sec ($15).

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