A guide to buying Champagne


New Year's Eve is made for Champagne — and vice-versa. But for many merry-makers, New Year's is the only time of year they buy bottles of bubbly. So what to look for?

There are increasing numbers of boutique Champagne and sparkling-wine producers making high-quality wines, and they're showing up more often on local store shelves. So if you want to venture out a bit from the beaten path, don't hesitate to approach your local wine purveyor and ask for a suggestion of something a little different.

For now, though, the shelves are stocked, the bottles are waiting — and the ball will be dropping before you know it. Here are a few of the basics you need to know when making your selection:

Deciphering labels

• Brut: The most common style of Champagne and sparkling wines, and also the driest, although some with terms such as "Extra Brut" can be even drier.

• Extra Dry: In the twisted lexicon of wine terms, these words, on a Champagne label, actually mean the wine is slightly sweeter than Brut. Go figure.

• Demi-sec, Doux: Sweeter styles of Champagne.

• Prosecco, Spumante, Asti Spumante: Italian sparklers; the spumantes are usually sweeter in style.

• Blanc de Blancs: A sparkler made exclusively from white grapes, usually chardonnay. Usually lighter in body.

• Blanc de Noirs: Made from red-wine grapes such as pinot noir and pinot meunier, though the skins are removed quickly so the wine remains white. Tend to be richer and more full-bodied.

• Méthode Champenoise: This designation means the secondary fermentation (the one that makes the bubbles) takes place in the bottle, not a giant holding tank.

Keeping it real

Champagne producers in the Champagne region of France don't like it much when sparkling-wine producers elsewhere call their bubblies "Champagne," and, well... they do have a point. Champagne is a region in France, and inside France, only wines that come from Champagne can be labeled "Champagne." "Chablis" and "Burgundy" are also prestigious wine-growing regions of France, but American wine companies, such as E&J Gallo, "borrowed" those names and slapped them on the labels of cheap wines, much to the astonishment — and chagrin — of the French. So if you want to be totally accurate, there's no such thing as California Champagne or Ohio Champagne. Those are sparkling wines — but not true Champagnes. I mean, it'd be like some Canadian football team (or, say, a team from Michigan) calling themselves the "Ohio State Buckeyes."

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