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'Tis the season on bubbly. (Image: Thinkstock)

Sparkling wine 101

If there is a wine that's appropriate for a celebration, it's sparkling wine. Festive occasions, big events, lavish parties, all are appropriate with a bottle of bubbly. Or if it's a mundane weeknight, a sparkler will brighten up that roast chicken dinner. Here is a primer on sparkling wine so you can drop trivia factoids right before the ball drops.

All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne

While Champagne has become a catch-all name for its product, akin to what's happened to Xerox or Kleenex, it gets tricky. See, Champagne is also the name of the region that produces these sparkling wines. In fact, the Champagne people have a brute squad to protect their name. The sparkling wines that come from the Champagne region follow strict rules and method of production. There are three grape varietals that are found in Champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. If Champagne is comprised of all Chardonnay grapes, it's referred to as 'Blanc de Blancs'; if it adds one of the other two, it's 'Blanc de Noir'.

The traditional method or 'méthode champenoise' of production was pioneered in Champagne and why it makes for a potentially pricey wine. To get the bubbles, the wine needs to go through a secondary fermentation where more yeast is added to the wine to give it the effervescence and bubbles. There are other labor-intensive processes that champagne goes through (like riddling, dosage, and the strong glass) that all contribute to the final cost of Champagne.

Another thing to consider with Champagne is that most of the major Champagne houses (Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Krug, etc) will have an 'NV' or 'non-vintage' bottling that represents their house style. That way, you'll have an idea of what to expect with those bottles. This is where Champagne is a bit different than still wines. Vintage variations are an expectation with most wines, yet Champagne tends to keep the house style. Most Champagne producers will only produce a wine in a vintage they find particularly exceptional. Know that these wines can be very expensive. Which says a lot since most Champagne is expensive.

There is a growing faction of champagne known as 'Grower Champagne'. Grower Champagnes are produced by the estates that grow the grapes. Instead of selling their grapes to the big houses, Growers produce their own wine and their style is a bit more complex or unique than the major producers. When looking for Grower Champagnes, look for an RM (for Récoltant-Manipulant) on the label. If you're shopping locally in Seattle, Fat Cork in Lower Queen Anne specializes in Grower Champagne.

Look to the rest of France (and Europe) for other sparkling wines, like Cremant, Cava, and Prosecco

There are other options than Champagne when it comes to bubbly. In France, if a sparkling wine is made that isn't from Champagne, it's a Crémant and those can be found from wine-producing regions like Alsace, Loire, and more. Crémant is made in the traditional method and as the name implies, have a creamier mouthfeel due to the lower bottle pressure relative to Champagne. Also helps that, in general, Crémant is less expensive than Champagne.

Other European sparkling wine producing countries include Spain for their Cava, and Italy for their Prosecco. Spanish Cava is made in the traditional method, but often use the macabeu, parellada, and xarel-lo grapes. In general, the bubbles of Cava are a bit larger and chunkier than those of Champagne. Prosecco from Italy goes through its secondary fermentation in stainless steel tanks, which explains its lower pricepoint. You'll find the flavor profiles to hew towards the citrus end and the classic bellini cocktail of prosecco and peach puree would be welcomed at any NYE party.

US houses of sparkling wine

American sparkling wine is a worthy alternative to Champagne. There are great sparkling wines coming from Washington, Oregon, California, and New Mexico (really!) In our home state, we have the sparklers from Domaine Ste. Michelle and Treveri Cellars that would be great at any party. Oregon has Argyle for a readily available sparkling wine. California has a multitude of great sparkling wine choices. In fact, some of the big French Champagne houses have outposts in California. There is Mumm Napa from G.H. Mumm, Domaine Carneros from Taittinger, Domaine Chandon by Moët & Chandon, and Roederer Estate from Roederer. Of the California sparkling wines, my personal favorites are from Calistoga's Schramsberg. One of the oldest operating wineries in Napa Valley, Schramsberg produces a suite of wines produced in the traditional method and their wines are often poured at White House dinners. If you're looking for something different, Gruet from New Mexico is a fine option.

Seattle shopping options

We touched on Fat Cork, Domaine Ste. Michelle, and Treveri earlier. But from a local store perspective, any good wine shop (like those here) will recommend some options as sparkling wine is a favored topic amongst wine nerds. Also, the sparkling wine (Metropolitain Champagne) from Metropolitan Market exhibits the bready characteristics and fine bubbles often found in more expensive bottles. And after reading this post from Gramercy Cellars' Greg Harrington in regards to Kirkland Signature's NV Champagne, I'm planning on visiting Costco for some of their under $20 bottles of bubbly.

Sparkling wine makes any occasion festive and special. What's also great about sparkling wine is that it goes with everything; from caviar to fried chicken, it's a ideal pairing with most foods. Cheers to great food and great wine to end a great year. Happy New Year, everyone.

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