If wines were superstars, champagne would be the brightest diva of all.
Something about its effervescence, golden color and crisp taste command special status as a wine befitting special occasions, especially New Year's Eve.
But let's face it, the ranks of bottles at your local supermarket or liquor store can be puzzling.
What's the difference between champagne and sparkling wine? Brut and extra dry? Is a $4 bottle of Andre comparable to a $30 Pommery?
The mystery behind champagne is not some sort of ploy to keep the common folk in the dark -- it just takes a little research to sort it out. Here's a guide to buying champagne:
Champagne vs. sparkling wine
All champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is champagne. Confused? It's really not that complicated.
Technically, "real" Champagne (with a capital C) comes only from the region of the same name in northern France.
"If it's not from the Champagne region of France, it's not officially `Champagne.' Everything else is sparkling wine," said Tom Huffstetler, a sales representative with Georgia Crown Distributing.
The method used to make sparkling wines is one factor affecting quality.
French laws dictate that wine labeled Champagne must be produced using Methode Champenoise, a meticulous, traditional method of individual bottle fermentation.
All sparkling wine, including champagne, is wine that has been fermented twice. Traditionally, it's made from a blend of Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes (red). Blanc de Blancs is wine made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.
In the traditional method, bottles are opened after the first fermentation and a sugar and yeast mixture are added. Sealed in the bottle, the yeast consumes the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, which in turn produces bubbles.
The mechanization of making sparkling wine in the bottle, pioneered by the Spanish, has made it easier and cheaper to produce larger amounts of quality wine, according to Sally and Dick Benjamin, part-owners of Wine World in North Augusta. This brings down the cost for the consumer.
Sparkling wine is also bulk-processed in large vats, known as charmat or tank method. Charmat-method sparkling wines can be processed in a few weeks while bottle fermentation takes one to three years or more.
How and where sparkling wine is made makes a difference not only in quality, but in price.
The Money Pit
Spending $150 on a bottle of wine doesn't fit into most people's budgets, so it's important to know the difference between Dom Perignon and pump `n' shop pop.
While "prestige" brands like Dom come at a price, it isn't necessary to spend your life savings on impressive bubbly. Here are some wines recommended by local champagne and sparkling wine experts:
Low-end sparkling wines, which are produced in big pressurized vats, won't break your wallet -- or blow your mind. Some are simply carbonated wine. For under $5, there's Andre, J. Roget and Le Domaine.
Many quality Spanish sparkling wines -- or Cava -- are available in the $5-$15 range. Well-known brands include Freixenet and Cordorniu. In the same price range, Italian sparkling wine, called Asti spumante, is sweet and fruity. Cinzano and Martini & Rossi brands sell for $10-$12.
People willing to spend a little more -- $15 to $30 -- might want to try California vintners using the traditional champagne method such as Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros and Domaine Chandon. These are French-owned estates. California vineyards known for their sparkling wines are Iron Horse and Schramsberg.
If authenticity is in order, you don't have to be filthy rich to buy good Champagne. For $30 to $40, a bottle of Pommery, Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm, Pol Roger or Perrier-Jouet exemplify French quality. Pommery, with a light, crisp taste is a good place to start if the only thing you've had is cheap stuff.
Then there are the luxury or "prestige" Champagnes -- the names associated with big bucks.
"You don't think price when buying fine Champagne," said Frank Carpenter, club steward at the Augusta National Golf Club. Mr. Carpenter, who oversees the club's wine cellar, stocks "prestige" Champagnes.
Priced anywhere from $70 and up, Louis Roederer's Cristal, Bollinger's Vintage, Veuve Clicquot's La Grande Dame and Moet et Chandon's Dom Perignon are top-of-the-line.
The Champagne Mystique
The aura surrounding Champagne is "partly tradition, partly quality and partly hype," said Mrs. Benjamin.
The mystique may be attributed to the high risk factor early makers faced.
In the 17th century, Dom Perignon, a French cellar master, first created the blend of grapes that is the basis for Champagne. Through experimentation, he learned which ingredients to add for the second fermentation.
During this time, making champagne was dangerous -- and expensive -- because bottles burst from the contents under pressure. Royalty and the rich who requested champagne for a special event had to pay not only for the actual bottles made but for those lost in the process.
So what makes champagne special today?
"It's kind of festive -- and you can drink it at any course of the meal and for any occasion," said Mr. Carpenter.
A Matter of Taste
Like all food and drink, what constitutes a good champagne or sparkling wine depends on a person's palate. There should be "certain creaminess with a crisp finish," Mrs. Benjamin said.
"There are champagnes for every taste but many people are confused by the nomenclature," she said.
Wines labeled "brut" are driest while those labeled "demi-sec" will be sweeter. "Extra dry" falls somewhere in between.
Another way to judge quality is the fineness of the bubbles, Mrs. Benjamin said. A glass of champagne that's "churning like a bubble machine is not really good quality -- it tastes like foam," she said.
Since Champagne and sparkling wine are derived from blends of grapes, differences in taste depend on the fruit used. Some Champagnes taste more full-bodied than others and all have a certain level of acidity.
It's the balance between fruit, acidity and bubbles that make good Champagne, according to Kevin Zraly's book Windows on the World Complete Wine Course.
With the millennium approaching, sparkling wine producers are hinting that demand for their product will cause shortages. Marketing ploy? Maybe. But it's not too early to start looking for that special bottle to open at the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 2000.
POPPING THE CORK:
Although the popping sound of champagne corks is synonymous with celebration, shooting corks off like cannonballs is not the best -- or safest -- way to enjoy bubbly. In fact, popping the cork and making the liquid foam out of the bottle releases the carbon dioxide that keeps it bubbly.
Here's how to open a bottle correctly:
1. Cut the foil around the top of the bottle.
2. Place your hand on top of the cork, never removing your hand until the cork is pulled out completely.
3. Take off the wire.
4. Wrap a towel around the bottle for safety and spillage.
5. Remove the cork gently, slowly turning the bottle in one direction and the cork in another. You'll still get a nice "pop" sound and the champagne will taste better longer.
SOURCE: Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly.
SERVING & DRINKING:
Keep champagne or sparkling wine cold (between 45 and 54 degrees) to hold in effervescence.
Drink it in a flute or tulip-shaped glass. The old-fashioned shallow glasses are pretty but don't keep in bubbles.
Many foods go well with champagne including egg dishes, turkey, fish and oysters. Avoid serving dry (brut) champagne with desserts -- it's too dry for sweets.
THE MORNING AFTER:
Champagne and sparkling wine are fun, festive drinks but they also pack a wallop the morning after.
The reason? Bubbly alcoholic beverages put booze into the bloodstream more quickly. Although the liver tries to keep up, it can't, and the alcohol pours into the bloodstream.
To offset headaches:
Eat while drinking and drink less
Drink lots of water the night before and morning after, because alcohol makes you urinate more than usual, which dehydrates the body.
Take a pain reliever. Aspirin can ease your pounding head, but your stomach, already irritated by the alcohol, may object. Don't use drugs with acetaminophen, which can be toxic to the liver when alcohol is present.
One last tip: Don't drink and drive.