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Your Guide to Holiday Champagne

By Thane Peterson This time of year, a person's thoughts turn to revelry. And, as cookbook author Nigella Lawson said recently when I asked her to suggest a good wine for holiday dining, "Call me vulgar, but I like champagne." (See BW Online, 11/19/02, "Chewing the Fat with Nigella Lawson".)

It's always a good idea to stock up on bubbly near yearend because most of the major producers discount their prices to be competitive during the big holiday selling period, notes Gary Heck, president and owner of California's Korbel Champagne Cellars, based near Santa Rosa. But this year in particular "is a great time to buy champagne and sparkling wine," says Jeffrey Connell, buyer for Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City.

Prices are, indeed, low -- both on French champagne and domestic and foreign sparkling wines. That's surprising, because the glut that developed in 2000 has finally been sold off. "The Millennium hangover lasted two years, and now it's over," says a relieved Heck. With inventories back to normal, U.S. case shipments in the first nine months of the year were up 27% for foreign sparkling wine and 29% for French champagne, Heck says.

CHATEAU COSTCO. Domestic shipments are up, too, though to a lesser degree. After a two-year slump, Korbel's case shipments will rise about 10% this year, to around 1.15 million, Heck says. That's about what they were in 1998, before the Millennium boom kicked in. Based on shipments, Heck figures Korbel has about 18% of the U.S. market.

With the glut gone, you'd expect prices to be rising. However, the weak economy has big producers spooked, says Joseph Politz, president of D&M Wine & Liquor in San Francisco. "The major brands aren't moving so well, so they're willing to work with us on price." If anything, competition seems to be intensifying. "Americans are buying more and more wine in big chain stores," observes Hugh Davies, winemaker at California-based Schramsberg, which makes sparkling wines.

Indeed, if you want a great deal on fine wine or champagne these days, you would be wise to check your local Costco outlet. The discount chain is now the biggest retailer of fine wines and bubblies in the U.S.

Adding to the competition, many big, local wine retailers now sell via the Web, shipping to several dozen states and Washington, D.C. I found great deals on the sites of major retailers recommended in the book Champagne & Sparkling Wine Guide by Tom Stevenson (DK Publishing, $14.95), including D&M, Sam's Wine Store in Chicago, as well as New York City's Astor Wines & Spirits. Costco also sells via the Web, though it ships to only a few states at this point.

TOP SHELF. If you're looking for a fancy label to impress your friends, here are some examples of the price-slashing at D&M right now: 1990 vintage Laurent Perrier is going for $54.99 per bottle, less than one-third the suggested list price, while Veuve Cliquot Grande Dame and Bollinger Grande Année are priced at $64.99 and $56.99, respectively -- about half the suggested list. If you really want to turn heads, how about a bottle of 1988 Clos de Mesnil Blancs de Blancs from Krug, the top French champagne house, for $349.99?

Too rich for your blood? D&M has Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label and Taittinger Brut La Francaise champagne for $26.99 ($6 or $8 less than I'm used to paying), and Roederer Estate Brut from California for $15.99. On the Sam's and Astor Wines sites, even low-end brands like Spain's Freixenet are discounted, though shipping costs eat up your savings if you're buying via the Web (unless, of course, you're buying a heck of a lot).

Before we proceed with some recommended alternatives to the familiar brands, a few basics: Only bubbly produced in the Champagne region of France can rightfully be called "champagne." However, many inexpensive sparkling wines are made using the traditional French method, which involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle -- including such under-$10-per-bottle sparkling wines as Korbel and Freixenet. If you want to keep the enamel on your teeth, it's probably best not to drink anything cheaper than Freixenet Cordon Negro, which goes for as little as $6 per bottle (and is pretty good for the price).

ACCORDING TO TASTE. A few definitions: "Brut" and "extra dry" are the driest sparkling wines, though you will occasionally find an "extra brut," which is even drier. Those are the ones you want for aperitifs and to drink with a meal. (As Ms. Lawson suggests, there's nothing wrong with serving champagne instead of wine with a holiday feast.) "Sec" and "demi-sec" varieties are sweeter and are generally served with desert. If the label says "blancs de blancs," your sparkling wine is made entirely from chardonnay or other white grapes. If it says "blancs de noir," it is a white wine made with red grapes (still with me?).

"Vintage" champagne simply means that all the grapes come from the same year. Only the best years are declared vintage, so that's good. But a lot of great Dom Perignon you see on the shelves is nonvintage. The "nonvintage" designation means it's made from a blend of wines from different years, not that the quality is lower.

Whatever French champagne you choose these days, the quality is likely to be unusually high. Producers in Champagne declared several years during the 1990s to be vintage, including 1995, '96, and '97. That means the underlying wine that went into most of the champagne on the shelves right now is exceptionally good. Indeed, 1996 "was one of the greatest vintages ever," Connell says.

SO MANY CHOICES. For something a little fancy, try a Pol Roger, a small French house that produced Winston Churchill's favorite champagne. Jean Michel Deluc, former sommelier at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and now the wine guru at the European online wine retailer Chateau Online, considers it "very good." Costco's Web site is selling 1995 Pol Roger Brut Rose for $47.99. On the Sam's Web site, Pol Roger Brut, which earned a rating of 89 out of 100 from Wine Spectator magazine, is $29.99, but only $24.99 on the Astor Wines site.

If you're on a budget, here are some recommendations from Connell (all offered on Astor Wine's site). On the low end, he suggests a French sparkling wine, Montlouis Brut, which is made just across the river from Vouvret and goes for only $11.99. If you want to spend a little more, he suggests the Pierre Moncuit Blancs de Blancs, which is priced at $28.99 (or $39.99 for the 1995 vintage), or the Gaston-Chiquet Carte Verte at $27.99 (or $43.99 for the 1996 Special Club Vintage).

You also find tons of choices if you want to buy American. Many of the big French producers now make sparkling wine in California. A good bet in that category is always Roederer Estate at $16 or $18 per bottle. For a mainstream, moderately priced sparkling wine, Kevin Zraly, author of The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, suggests Korbel Natural (as opposed to the cheaper Korbel Brut), which runs around $12 or $14 per bottle at this time of year.

PRIDE OF NEW MEXICO. Again, however, you don't have to reach for the familiar labels. For instance, why not try something from Schramsberg, probably the top California producer? Costco's site offers 1998 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs at $23.99. The Sam's site has a number of Schramsberg varieties priced between $20 and $30. On the high end, 1995 J Schram Brut is priced at $71.79.

Alternatively, a great bargain at Astor Wines is a 1985 Falconer Blanc de Blancs from California at only $17.99. Another intriguing possibility, one Connell says is excellent: sparkling wines from Gruet, a small New Mexico producer (founded by sons of France's Gruet family, which makes a well-known champagne). Gruet Brut and Gruet Blancs de Noirs are both priced at $10.99 on the Astor Wine site.

If you're still thirsting for more information, the Champagne & Sparkling Wine Guide is an excellent primer. It also provides the opinions of English author Tom Stevenson, one of the most respected authorities, on just about every champagne and sparkling wine you're likely to find on sale. Clearly, it pays to shop around and try new labels, and Stevenson provides everything you need to get started. Cheers! Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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