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Ring in the New Year the Right Way: A Guide to Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Don't know the difference between a Prosecco and a Moscato? Have no fear, we have a complete guide to all things bubbly.

For the uninitiated, just walking into the champagne aisle at the liquor store can give you the New Year's Day spins. The sheer number of sparklers can be overwhelming, but don't just grab the nearest bottle of Andre and slink out. Let's review which ones may be best for your New Year's Eve dinner or celebration.

Types of Bubbly

You know what they say: It's all in the name. In the case of sparkling wines that's very true. It's common to lump all sparklers under the name champagne. And in fact, that was OK until French wine makers took the matter to court. Nowadays, only wines produced in the Champagne region of France are legally allowed to be called "champagne" (note, there were a few California brands that were grandfathered in, and thus are exceptions to the rule).

A true champagne can cost a lot, from around $45 and more to as high as you can afford. Prices of sparkling wines will depend on the amount of time spent aging, the grapes used in the bottling and the process used to produce the champagne or sparkling wine.  

However, there are many sparkling wines that are not labeled "champagne" that are made by the same process (the "méthode champenoise"). They are just as tasty and cost a fraction of the price.

• From Spain, we have cava.

"Cava is made with same method as champagne. It's very high quality for a lower price," said Nikki Erpelding, manager of wine and spirits at Burnsville's Byerly's. "An entry level cava is about $10 to $25."

• The Italians have several offerings, the most popular being Prosecco. If you're in the market for a Prosecco, look at the bottle. Is it labeled DOC or DOC-G? The two designations are markers of quality.

"DOC-G is higher quality, but there's no huge price disparity," Erpelding said. "A DOC would be $15 and a DOC-G would be around $20. That's not terribly vast difference for stepping up."

• There are tons of high quality American sparklers that would give Champagne chauvinists a run for their money. Erpelding recommends the Argyle brand out of Oregon. Wine Spectator also offers a list of quality American sparklers, most of which hail from California.

• Other types of bubbly: Moscato is one of the biggest new categories. It's a sweet sparkling wine that is great for the occasional wine drinker. It's also very affordable. A moscato spumante from Barefoot Wine, for instance, will cost less than $10. Whatever you do, make sure you've gotten a "Moscato Spumante" or you'll get a flat wine, no bubbles.

This New Year's some wine makers have added a little twist into the Moscato mix.

"I would recommend Mama Mango. It's a Moscato with mango puree," Erpelding said. "It's like a mimosa in a bottle. It's excellent and just so delicious."

Taste and Tartness

The guide below gives you a sweetness indication of sparkling wines:

  • Extra-Brut or Brut-Naturale: 0-6 grams of sugar per liter (the driest of the dry, unsweetened)
  • Brut: less than 15 grams of sugar per liter (dry—typical style of champagne with no sweetness)
  • Extra-Dry: 12-20 grams of sugar per liter (dry or slightly sweet)
  • Sec: 17-35 grams of sugar per liter (medium-sweet)
  • Demi-Sec: 33-55 grams of sugar per liter (sweet)
  • Doux: more than 55 grams of sugar

And last, but not least, opening it safely

Sparkling wine can be very dangerous in the wrong hands. Open it without caution and you can blind someone for life (really). So here's how to do this right.

First, disbuse yourself of the notion that a champagne toast is incomplete without a big pop and a cascade of foam. That's a Hollywood invention. If your bottle spews like that, your sparkling wine is too warm or you've shaken it (against all good sense and reason, I may add). Not only may you put your grandma's eye out, but your sparkler will fizzle out because you've wasted all those lovely bubbles. So chill that sucker for a few hours before you open it.

Once it's nice and cold, peel off the foil cover. You'll find a metal cage with a twist tab on the side. Before you do anything, make sure the bottle is not pointing at anyone or anything breakable. Likewise, don't point it straight at the ceiling (unless you want to get popped in the head). Hold the bottle at a modest angle (45 degrees). Once you've twisted the cage off, take firm hold of the cork and twist the bottle. Ease the cork out slowly. You should hear a small sigh or gasp from the bottle, not an eruption.
Enjoy!

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