Champagne and sparkling wine: Truce for the holidays

Learn and appreciate the differences between the two

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who drink sparkling wine pretty much all the time because there's nothing else quite as refreshing and snappy, and those who drink it now ― at holiday time ― because it's simply more festive, more celebratory than anything else.

The division between camp #1 and camp #2 has very little to do with money, by the way. It's just not true that bubbles always cost a lot. Indeed, one of the more remarkable facts about wine prices these days is that in a single store you can find dozens of mediocre Chardonnays priced at $20 or more sitting next to terrific sparklers that cost less than $15, even though the latter is infinitely harder to make than the former. But that's another story. This time of year, what matters most is that we're all on the same side of the fence ― Champagne is a state of mind we can all share.

You've probably noticed that I've gone back and forth between the terms sparkling wine and Champagne. Technically, they're not quite the same thing. A sparkling wine is any wine, from anywhere in the world (including Champagne, France), that has bubbles in it; Champagne is a sparkling wine from the Champagne district. Sparklers are divided into two broad groups: (a) those made by the painstaking process developed in Champagne, and (b) wines that have gotten bubbles by being carbonated (à la cola).

Forget the carbonated stuff right off the bat. It's dirt cheap, but the bad news is that it tastes even cheaper than it is.

Sparkling wines made by the traditional Champagne method (méthode Champenoise) ― including Champagne itself ― are entirely different. The process took centuries to refine and would take pages to explain. The important point is this: The bubbles weren't created; they occurred naturally over time (as much as six years) inside each bottle. That's why, unlike cola's florid fizz, a great sparkler's bubbles are tiny, elegant, and gloriously persistent.

Champagne is singled out from other quality sparklers because it comes from a place that's truly unique. Standing on the craterlike region's white, chalky soil, you can almost imagine you're on Mars rather than about 90 miles northeast of Paris. This soil and the area's mostly cold, forbidding climate give the wine a contrapuntal tension: It seems sharp and creamy at the same time.

The top California sparklers, by comparison, aren't quite as counterintuitive; they're more hedonistic, more generous ― like the state's climate itself.

Neither is better than the other. In fact, as a teacher, I set up many blind sparkling-wine tastings for my students (all of whom are adult professionals), and no one has ever been able to distinguish all the California wines from the Champagnes. I'm quite sure I couldn't do this myself ― even though (I'll admit now) I belong to camp #1. Taste, in the end, is highly personal. Isn't that worth celebrating?

Q: How many of those tiny bubbles are there in a bottle of Champagne?

A: None ― until you open the bottle. Popping the cork releases the pressure inside, at which point the gas erupts into bubbles ― about 56 million or so, according to the Champagne firm of Bollinger, which has conducted extensive research on the subject.

A FEW STARS

The prices below are suggested retail, but shop around ― many wine stores have big discounts on bubblies for the holidays.

Mirabelle Brut nonvintage (North Coast, CA), $16. Crisp, clean, and fresh, with a hint of toastiness.

Iron Horse Wedding Cuvée Blanc de Noirs 1998 (Green Valley, Sonoma County), $28. Originally created for the wedding of one of the owners, this exotic but elegant fruity sparkler is irresistibly creamy.

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Monterey Counties), $31. With its utterly rich mouthfeel and sophisticated flavors, this is one of the most refined and complex sparklers made in California.

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs Brut nonvintage (Champagne), $35. One of France's best-kept secrets ― rich but full of finesse, creamy yet incisively crisp. Packed with light lemon tart, vanilla créme anglaise, and ginger flavors.

Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut nonvintage (Champagne), $45. Dramatic and sleek, with such an elegant citrus aroma you'll feel as though you've just drifted into a lemon grove. Beautifully classic.

Sunset's Wine Club

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