It's not unusual for a particular wine to be more popular during a certain time of the year. Beaujolais nouveau, for instance, sells well in November but good luck selling it the following July.
Champagne, on the other hand, is a year-round drink but it struggles to survive beyond December because it's eternally attached to holiday celebrations.
It's such a pity that consumers don't often see the value in drinking champagne just for the heck of it. It's such a versatile wine that can be enjoyed as an aperitif or even alongside seafood. We like its match to raw oysters and enjoy its cleansing nature with scallops and caviar.
Champagne's bubbles give a festive note to the occasion and it serves as a warm greeting for arriving guests. It adds zest to any toast and kicks off a dinner with elegance. It adds romance to an intimate, candlelight dinner for two.
Champagne isn't easy to make. First, the cold region in this northern part of France makes growing conditions difficult. Frost, rain and a short season often lead to unripened grapes -- and this is especially complicated by global warming that is making grape-growing more difficult in this region.
Second, the wine has to go through a secondary fermentation to get those bubbles we all love. That requires time and money, hence champagne's lofty prices.
Although France has a lock on champagne -- it's a region that rightfully owns the name -- sparkling wine is made in most countries nowadays. The sparkling wine we often taste from California and Oregon are very good, and Italy's prosecco has recently developed a strong fan club in this country. We haven't been very fond of cavas from Spain or the sparkling wines from Germany and Australia. Good sparkling wine starts with good wine, so don't think that bubbles will mask imperfections.
In France, the only grapes that can be used to make champagne are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Pinot noir adds weight to the blend while chardonnay adds elegance. Although this country favors pinot noir and chardonnay, we have seen sparkling wine made from cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and other grape varieties. Little of it has appealed to us.
You can find sparkling wine for $15 or less, but save this for the punch bowl or mimosas. Spend a little more money for a quality sparkling wine, especially if this is the only occasion of the year that you will serve sparkling wine.
Here are some recommendations:
*Nicolas Feuillatte. We recommend these French champagnes all of the time because they are the best value on the market. The brut costs less than $30 on sale. We recently tasted the brut reserve Particulliere -- a blend of 20 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir and 40 percent pinot meunier -- and loved its crisp, pear and apple notes.
*Dom Perignon. This champagne has symbolized luxury champagne for decades, but its abundance has challenged its exclusive image. However, Dom ($160) is still a great champagne.
*Bollinger. A classy champagne recognized the world over, Bollinger's nonvintage cuvee ($65) of all three grapes remains a stunning, serious wine. Expressive, bready nose with apple and pear notes and a luxurious mouth-feel.
*Gruet. Made surprisingly in New Mexico, this sparkling wine is a good buy at $15 a bottle. Nice green apple flavors and elegance you don't always find in U.S. sparkling wines.
*J Cuvee 20. The nonvintage brut at $20 is a steal. Mostly a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, it has lemon and yeast aromas with apple and tropical fruit flavors.
*Iron Horse. Joy Sterling's California sparklers have been served at a number of state dinners in the White House, and it remains a steady favorite. A little more pricey than most, it exudes quality. The 2006 Classic Vintage Brut ($34) is a terrific wine that would grace any holiday feast.
*Argyle. Indisputably the best Oregon producer of sparkling wines, Argyle enjoys a great reputation for American-made bubblies. The regular 2007 brut at $27 delivers a lot of quality for the price.
*Prosecco. There has been a recent love affair with this trendy sparkling wine from Italy. It's reasonably priced and refreshing as an aperitif. We like Riondo, Adami Garbol and Jaume Serra Cristalino.