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Few sounds put a more exuberant ending on the year than the "thonk" of a cork popping from a bottle of chilled champagne. Yet nothing can dampen a mood faster than raising a flute to one’s lips and tasting bitter or overly sweet champagne.

If only choosing a great bottle of bubbly was as effortless as drinking one. Walk into any liquor store, especially during the holidays, and you’ll be faced with shelves full of champagne.

How do you make a selection?

From still to bubbly

All champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are champagne. The word "champagne" is applied when the grapes are harvested from the vineyards of Champagne, a region in France that lies northeast of Paris, and made according to strict guidelines followed by the wineries of that region.

The making of sparkling wine follows similar winemaking techniques, but cannot be labeled champagne if the estate isn’t situated in the Champagne region. (Several American wineries are legally allowed to label their product champagne, but their wines cannot be sold in Europe.)

The Champagne region’s cold climate forces growers to pick grapes before their natural yeast has matured enough to convert the grapes’ sugar into alcohol. The short growing season necessitates the addition of sugar.

The bottled, pressed grape juice sits until spring’s warmer temperatures generate a second fermentation called Methode champenois. The second fermentation creates carbon dioxide, now trapped in the bottle, hence the bubbles and sparkles.

Champagne is blended with only three grapes - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay: each grape adds its own character. The Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier add depth, richness of flavor and lend a soft, silky mouth feel. The Chardonnay grape adds lightness and finesse.

Many champagne bottles are not marked with a year, which allows the vintner to blend grapes harvested over an extended period of time.

A vintage bottle of champagne is produced when a particular year’s harvest yields a grape with an exceptional character. Vintage champagnes will have the date marked on the bottle’s label and are generally more expensive than non-vintage bottles.

Brut is the driest of the champagnes and the most popular; Sec is sweeter. Doux is the sweetest of the champagnes, usually served as a dessert wine.

When the skin remains on the Pinot Noir grape during fermentation the champagne is tinged pink and labeled Rose. (The tint of pink does not mean the champagne is sweet the way a non-sparkling rose wine sometimes is.)

Ask the experts

Darrin Siegfried, owner of Red, White and Bubbly, in Park Slope, and past president and former national education director of the Sommelier Society, in Manhattan, where he teaches, offered this: "Go with quality." A quality champagne has a "clean, crisp acidity and a good balance of fruit on the nose and the palate," he said.

Siegfried estimated the price of a decent bottle of champagne at anywhere from $25 to $275.

"The cost," said Siegfried, "reflects the hard labor that goes into creating a bottle of champagne."

For the holidays, Siegfried is stocking champagne at all price levels. He suggested a Paul Goerg Blanc de Blanc at $25 that "beat out older, more well known wineries in taste tests," adding, "there’s an excellent balance of flavors. Not too acid."

Siegfried recommends Veuve Clicquot ($50), and Krug ($100) saying, "There’s no finer champagne on the market."

Pat Savoie, proprietor of Big Nose Full Body, also in Park Slope, gave similar advice.

"Many of the smaller estates make a high-quality champagne," which she described as "dry, elegant with small bubbles."

Savoie’s customer is price-conscious but will sometimes splurge on an expensive bottle for an important celebration or gift giving. In stock this season are bottles priced between $9 and $125.

At $9, Savoie suggested Charles de Fere, a Brut she described as "light yet rich, full-bodied and fruity."

"No one will be disappointed," she said. "It’s a popular champagne among my customers."

For $25, Montaudan Brut is crisp and full-bodied, she said.

"It received 92 points from Wine Spectator Magazine," she adds.

Louis De Sacy, also a Brut, at $30, made from half Pinot Noir grapes and half Chardonnay is "elegant," said Savoie, noting that for the splurge, Clicquot La Grand Dame, a 1995 Brut, is "great champagne" that comes in a beautiful gift box for $125.

Joe DeLissio, wine director at the River Cafe, on Fulton Ferry Landing, and author of "The River Cafe Wine Primer" (Little Brown, 2000), suggests sparkling wine as an option to authentic champagne.

Two sparkling wines from vineyards in California that DeLissio describes as "full-bodied with an elegant finish" are Roederer Estate Brut selling for approximately $22, and Schramsberg for around $30. The northern California Roederer is the first sparkling wine to be produced by the 200-year-old, family-owned, Champagne-region vintner Champagne Louis Roederer.

The sparkling wines of Spain, called Cava, do not follow the champagne model as closely as the California producers, "But they’re still a good product," Delissio says. A bottle of Marques de Alella will run about $10.

Asti, or Asti Spumante, from Italy, is fizzy and sweeter than the others. A bottle of Moscato d’Asti at Big Nose Full Body runs $14 and is best served with dessert.

Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine from Italy’s Veneto region, is light and fruity on the nose, and has a pleasantly bitter taste. Big Nose Full Body carries Zardetto Prosecco, a full-bodied brut, for $13.

Rick Landy who manages Michael-Towne Wines & Spirits, in Brooklyn Heights, stocks champagne at all price points. He’s certain that this year the Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal will sell out at $170, because it sold out the year before.

For $25, Landy thinks Nicolas Feuillatte Brut is worthwhile. Taittinger Brut is popular at $30 and gift sets of Laurent-Perrier Brut, that include two champagne flutes, are selling well at $32, he says.

That calls for a toast.

Where to shop

Big Nose Full Body, 382 Seventh Ave. at 11th Street in Park Slope, (718) 369-4030

Michael-Towne Wines and Spirits, 73 Clark St. (entrance on Henry Street) in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 875-0590

Red, White & Bubbly, 211-213 Fifth Ave. at Union Street in Park Slope, (718) 636-9463

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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