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Champagne Wishes

[whitespace] champagne
Paul Schraub

In the Family Spray: Champagne and its American sparkling cousins are definitely beverages worth popping a cork over on New Year's Eve--or anytime, really.

Especially during the holiday season, sparkling wine glitters like a celebratory treasure, rewarding those who pick their bubbly with care

By Christina Waters

WHETHER OR NOT it actually was that quick-witted French friar Dom Perignon who gave us sparkling wine, it's safe to say that the inventor of champagne--whoever he or she was--certainly deserves a hearty toast. And on the last night of the Western calendar year, that's exactly what will happen all around California. There'll be a whole lot of toasting, usually involving that most festive of drinks--champagne (or, as we Californians are forced to say by the very territorial French, "sparkling wine"). For many, New Year's Eve is the classic time to break out some bubbly and toast the old year, get a little sentimental and look forward to the coming year with a twinkle in our collective eye. So here are a few tips for maximizing that effervescent experience.

Champagne loves to be served cold--the colder the better. So try to either buy, locate or invent an ice bucket for the occasion, allowing the bottle to chill for about 20 minutes in a container filled half with ice, half with water. And no matter what you used to sip out of at your grandmother's house--or watched on old movies--sparkling wine is best served in tall flutes. The gentling tapered sides of the tall glass encourage those tiny bubbles to keep rising from the bottom. A steady stream of bubbles not only preserves the eye appeal of sparkling wine, but keeps the subtle flavors alive. Don't forget to hold the champagne flute by the stem, so that the chilled liquid isn't compromised by the warmth of your hand.

Now for some shopping tips. Buy the best champagne you can afford--quality does make a big difference in something as fragile as sparkling wine. But since we're all realists here, it's probably wise--especially when serving more than six intimate friends--to stock some acceptable, "second string" sparkling wine, for those second and third glassfuls.

If your champagne toasting is a romantic moment with your sweetheart, you might consider an important bottle of bubbly, like anything from Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger or some of the high-end Louis Roederer premiums. Roederer's fabled Cristal Brut (around $140) is arguably the most elegant champagne on the planet. But it's nice to know that Roederer also makes a wonderful non-vintage brut for around $30 (look around: Beverages & More, Safeway, Trader Joe's, Shoppers Corner, Draeger's--the usual well-stocked places will give you a major selection).

For all-around excellence, we suggest Veuve Clicquot (the 1989 Réserve Brut runs around $50). It's bone-dry, yet with enough residual fruit and flowers to have delicious flavor as well. The exquisitely tiny bubbles seem to go on and on forever. It goes with every imaginable food--and every imaginable situation.

While France is the official home of champagne, California is no slouch in the sparkling wine department. Affordable, as well as distinctive, are such beauties as the pale pink blanc de noirs from Gloria Ferrer (around $12), and the rounded, flavorful Chandon blanc de noirs (also kissed with a pale blush color) for $8 a split, $14 a bottle. The blanc de noirs bubblies acquire a beautiful color by momentary contact with the skins of the pinot noir grape from which they're made, so they look lovely in the glass, as well as tasting fine. Don't overlook the excellent Scharffenberger brut ($13-$16 ballpark), and even the Spanish Freixenet ($8) will do nicely when confronted with a selection crunch.

Those with ultra-modest budgets needn't despair. You can still toast in the New Year with style and poise, using the cheap but drinkable Cook's, at $7.50 a magnum one of the deals of the century. Cook's, Korbel, Freixenet, Mumm's and Chandon are all under-$10 brands that you practically stumble over (careful there) at groceries and convenience stores. Given the magical, mood-enhancing qualities of those tiny bubbles, remember that it's the thought of champagne that matters. However, you should probably know that Safeway is stocking Dom Perignon, vintage 1988, for an incredible bargain price of $79.99. Who knows? Dec. 31, 1997, might just be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. With any luck at all, 1998 will be the year you've been waiting for!

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From the December 31, 1997-January 7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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