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One question I frequently hear at this time of year is, “What wine should I serve to celebrate at my holiday party?” My normal advice is, “The best sparkling wine that your guests deserve.” Why? Because sparkling wine is festive, it goes with almost any kind of food, and the bubbles tickle my nose. But the more pressing question is: What particular wine? To answer that I recently gathered nearly 20 widely available American sparkling wines priced at $25 or less. I also assembled about a dozen friends to help me with the daunting task of (blindly) tasting them. Three things became evident. First, price was not predictive of quality. Second, people’s preferences varied greatly based on the specific style of wine. And third, the general consensus was that we tried a few good wines, a few bad wines, and a bunch in the middle. First, a quick primer on sparkling wines. Most sparkling wines, including champagnes, are nonvintage — meaning that the wine is made from grapes grown in a number of different years. That allows the producers, through mixing and matching, to create and maintain a specific “house style.” Vintage sparkling wine, which is made from grapes grown in a particular year, will indicate that year on the bottle. As a general matter, when it comes to more affordable sparkling wines, like the ones discussed here, the younger the better. These wines are meant to be drunk upon release and only go downhill from there. Sparkling wines also come in a variety of sweetness levels. The most common is brut, or what we call dry. But because the French are the French, sparkling wines labeled extra-dry are actually sweeter than brut (though extra-brut sparkling wines are less sweet, but let’s not get into that). Finally, wines labeled demi-sec are fully sweet. All the wines that we tasted were labeled brut, though some were noticeably sweeter than others. Now on to the good wines. The winner by a nose was the Scharffenberger Brut ($15) from the Anderson Valley in California. The Anderson Valley’s cool climate helps the wine retain refreshing acidity and lends a number of wonderful aromas, including those of honey and lemon rind. On the palate, the wine shows tropical fruit flavors with a hint of yeastiness. One taster summed it up as “pure, bubbly, and fun.” Tied for second were the Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($15) and the best-value choice, the Gruet Blanc de Noir ($12). The Brut Prestige is medium- to full-bodied and displays aromas of toast and yeast with the flavor of red apple. The Gruet Blanc de Noir is similar, with more nutty aromas, small soft bubbles, and a pure crisp finish. Both would serve you well. Wines just a notch below the rest included the Blanc de Noirs (meaning those made primarily from the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes) from Chandon ($15) and the Roederer Estate Brut ($20). The Chandon Blanc de Noirs is fruitier than most of the other wines, with a touch of sweetness on the finish. While pleasant, it seems slightly out of balance. The Roederer Estate caused the biggest rift in the group. Many (including me) thought it was the best wine, with loads of smooth fruit, nuttiness, and citrus offset by vibrant acidity. Others disliked the wine’s tangy bite, going so far as to liken it to “rat poison.” This was a true matter of taste. The single least-liked wine was the old fraternity-formal favorite: Cook’s Brut ($6). You get what you pay for. Some other poor-performing wines were more surprising. The Schramsberg 2002 Blanc de Noir ($25) tastes old (to be fair, the bottle may have suffered from cork-taint). In fact it was described as “flat dishwater.” Similarly, the 2004 Francis Coppola Sophia Blanc de Blanc (meaning made entirely from Chardonnay) has faint aromas of dried pineapple, but tasted to some “dirty” and “vaguely unpleasant.” Both value-priced Domaine Ste. Michelles, the Brut and Blanc de Noir ($10 each), also were disappointing. While they were not unpleasant, there was little to recommend them besides the price. The rest of the wines we tasted — Gloria Ferrer Brut ($18), Laetitia Brut ($15), Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut 2000 ($25), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) Brut 2002 ($21), Gruet Brut ($12), Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs ($15), Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc 2002 ($25), Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut ($18) — comprised the great middle. All were acceptable, but none thrilled. A keen eye can spot the wide range of quality domestic sparklers at good prices. So when you plan your holiday parties, don’t forget to let the bubbly tickle your nose.
Phillip Dub� is an attorney and freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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