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How to shop for the best inexpensive bubbly

Stay classy, Charlotte

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Sparkling wine is the little black dress of the food world. Whether dressed up for New Year's Eve or served casually with tapas, this wine brings the "on" to any occasion, celebratory or not.

The problem is, many people think they know this wine, but they don't. Why? Their experience with a cheap, one-note sparkler at a wedding informs their taste. But of all the wine varieties, elegant and complex champagne has the distinction of being universally discernible among wine connoisseurs.

Champagne, which generally costs $35 and up, is made from pinot noir, chardonnay — native to Champagne, France — and pinot meunier grapes. But internationally, wine producers make sparklers from their own native grapes, each with a distinctive flavor.

Are there sparkling wines deals? Absolutely. Here are some tips on how to buy a quality sparkler:

1. Not all sparkling wines are champagne. Only those from the Champagne region of France can use that designation. Others are properly termed sparkling. All champagne is made according to the Méthode Champenoise, an expensive process where the second fermentation takes place inside the bottle. Quality sparkling wines made outside Champagne may also use this method. Among the most expensive champagnes are Bollinger, Krug, Dom Perignon and Cristal. However, lesser-known Champagne houses (the region's wineries) often have great deals for spectacular wines. Alex Herndon, wine buyer and manager at The Wine Shop at Foxcroft (7824 Fairview Road), suggests Thierry Triolet Brut NV (non-vintage) champagne for $34.99.

2. The bonus for selecting a French sparkler is this: French producers have self-imposed, strictly enforced rules. For example, houses will only release vintage-dated champagne (with the year on the label) when the wine proves itself to be worthy of that distinction. In other words, the winemaker – like a chef – won't make the entrée unless all the ingredients are of the highest quality. Thus, vintage champagne will assuredly be excellent.

3. Outside the Champagne region, other French producers make sparklers. Look for the word crémant (which means bubbly) with a place name: Crémant d'Alsace, for example. Typically, these wines are a bit more effervescent and less expensive than champagne. Spanish cavas are also good deals, since only sparklers made via méthode champenoise can be labeled a cava.

Quality California sparklers are made via méthode champenoise as well and offer some great values. Robert Balsley, owner of Arthur's Wine Shop (in the lower level at Belk, SouthPark), recommends the elegant Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rosé ($24.99). He notes that this is an all-American wine: American-made and American-owned.

Some champagne houses, such as Laurent-Perrier and Billecart-Salmon, are renowned for their rosés. Rosés range in color from pale salmon to deep pink, and get their shading from the small amount of added pinot noir.

4. Prosecco and Asti, sparkling Italian wines, are made with the charmant method, which is less expensive. The wine undergoes a second fermentation in a tank. Some companies even pump carbon dioxide into the tanks, much like a soft drink. Some American sparkler producers — Cook's, Tott's, Korbel — use the charmant process as well. These mass-produced products aren't worth the money nor the morning-after headache.

5. Look for your desired sweetness on the label. You'll find "natural" — sometimes called "extra brut" ­­— which is the driest, then "brut," "extra dry," "demi sec," "sec" and "doux" (really sweet). Sparkling wines get about six glasses per bottle and do not have to be consumed that day. Wine preservers with the flip sides can preserve sparkling wine for a week in the fridge. Plus you don't need specific stemware: any glass works.

One final note: Although many choose to drink sparklers exclusively for toasting, I find no better food pairing than champagne with oysters on the half shell or and sashimi, and cavas with Spanish tapas. If choosing a sparkler seems confusing, go to a wine shop. Buying in a grocery store is OK if you know what you are looking for, but few are staffed with knowledgeable employees.

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