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Break out the bubbly without breaking the bank

To many people, bubbles in wine are synonymous with champagne, while purists will argue (rightly) that true champagne comes only from the region of that name in France. Champagne is wonderful, but it has a big problem, and that problem sounds like "ka-CHING!"

Luckily for budget-minded consumers, plenty of sparkling wines offer high-quality celebratory bubbles at a fraction of the price of champagne. That means there's no need to scrimp on the gifts so you can spend on the bubbles this holiday season. And the really good news is, I've found two terrific bubblies that will have you and your guests dancing in the new year for a mere $10 a bottle.

But first, a short primer on what to look for. There are too many fine sparkling wines on the market to narrow them down to six choices. Here's how to find a wine to suit your needs.

Look for "the neighbors." If champagne is too pricey but you want to stay French, look for sparkling wines from other regions, such as Alsace, Bourgogne (Burgundy) or the Loire. Those wines are called "cremant," and they are made by the same method as champagne, with the secondary fermentation producing the bubbles in the bottle, though they might not be made with the same grape varieties. They often are quite excellent and range from $15 to $25.

Second, look for other countries that specialize in sparkling wines. Spain's cava and Italy's prosecco are ideal choices for celebrating any day's minor victories or just for starting off dinner with a smile. The best-known cava is probably Freixenet's Cordon Negro, which is widely available, inexpensive and rather cloyingly sweet. Most cavas are dry, often austere; they might be delicate or robust, but they are always inexpensive, ranging from about $8 to $20.

To paraphrase "Animal Farm," all cavas are good; some are better than others. My favorite from this year's crop is called Kila Cava, from famed Spanish wine broker Jorge Ordonez. It lives up to its cutesy name for a mere $10 with lively fruit and just enough richness to give it a little extra interest. At that price, it's worth buying by the case and keeping a bottle chilled for impromptu celebrations.

Sparkling wine is so popular that winemakers around the world produce their own versions. California makes some to rival champagne in complexity and price, but the real bargains can be found by way of some unexpected places. In Oregon, Argyle winery produces a delightful brut sparkler with an intensity of fruit that reminds me of the Domaine Chandon Etoile from Napa Valley. The Etoile costs about $40, but you can find the Argyle for $25 or less.

The real American steal, however, is the line of bubblies from Gruet, a champagne family that bought land and planted vineyards in New Mexico, of all places. The Gruet label includes a variety of wines costing about $15 that offer exceptional value and a hint of champagne quality.

My second holiday pick comes from South Africa. Not so surprising, you might say, if you've enjoyed the popular and excellent Graham Beck line of sparkling wines. But I was bowled over by an inexpensive charmer from Orange River Cellars, in the Northern Cape region, called Star Tree. It is made entirely from chenin blanc, a white grape that excels in South Africa, and therefore resembles the cremant wines from the Loire Valley in France, though with more fruit and less minerality. It is simply delicious, beautifully balanced and worth stocking up on.

Life's little victories, after all, don't always come in December, and when they do, they're worth celebrating.

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