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Bubbly for the Holidays

The difference between champagne and sparkling wine.

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Up the scale a notch are sparkling wines fermented in their own individual bottles. They contain a degree of heightened finesse and sophistication. High quality sparklers are made in California, France and Spain. Through clever technology, the Spanish have made individually fermented wines interesting, affordable and readily obtainable. One of their benchmarks is Codorniu Pinot Noir Brut ($13.50). It’s loaded with ripe, full fruit and a dazzling finish. Great bubbly for the money.

The major question that arises every year is the difference between the high-quality sparklers and champagne. Everyone seems to want to call all of it champagne. Champagne is a region 90 miles north of Paris that specializes in three specific grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Most importantly, the grapes are grown in vineyards of pure chalk. The best way to tell the difference is to taste a sparkler and a champagne side by side.

Champagne companies started wineries in California 30 ago. Their wines are similar because of the grapes used and the style. That’s where the similarity ends. Still, the quality of California brut sparklers has improved immensely over the past few years. The Domaine Chandon Brut Classic, California ($17-$20) is fruity, round and forward in flavor with a world of tiny bubbles. It is very dry and refreshing. Domaine Chandon Riche, X-Dry, California ($17-$20), is a step up in sweetness from the brut. More people are discovering these sweeter pink sparklers. They’re easier to drink by themselves and work well with a wide range of foods.

Pairing these two New World wines with the parent Moet and Chandon White Star, Champagne ($30-$40) shows you the essential difference between all of those good, fruity bubblies and the real thing. First, there’s the nose, the smell of chalk, austere in its sensation and essence. There really is a difference in nose, sensation, and that all-important first swallow.

You can climb up the sparkling-wine ladder and approach champagne in seriousness of flavor. In the case of Etoile Brut, 1998, California ($45), the price is higher than many sparklers but doesn’t begin to reach the stratosphere of vintage champagne. The years of bottle age contribute a toasty, biscuity flavor that moves way beyond the fruity bubbles of high quality sparklers. Five years in the bottle have transformed the bubbly into a series of fascinating flavors. Has it become champagnelike? No. The absence of chalk is what separates everything from champagne.

Moet Chandon Brut Imperial, N.V. ($40-$45) when tasted beside all of the others is the height of finesse, blending and that all-important flavor of place. If you want a sparkler with lots of fruit in the flavor stick to the Spanish or the Californians. If you want the real thing it will say it on the bottle: Champagne. S

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