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Nothing says “celebration!” like the sound of a pressurized cork being removed from a bottle of bubbly. But how do you choose the right bottle for your celebration, without spending so much the celebration fizzles out when you consider your bank account? Here are a few things to look for when it comes time to toast a raise, a graduation, an anniversary, or just a much-anticipated Friday night.

First, what is a sparkling wine? Simply put, it’s wine that has undergone a secondary fermentation to introduce bubbles of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the same gas that gives the fizz to soft drinks and sparkling water. The traditional method of doing this is to add a small amount of sweeter grape juice, called a dosage, into the bottle after the wine has undergone its initial fermentation. The extra sugar in the dosage gives the yeast cells a kick, causing them to continue producing CO2. After dosage, the bottle is capped, to keep it under pressure; this pressure means that the CO2 dissolves in the liquid. When enough CO2 has been produced to give the wine its characteristic bubbles, the cap is replaced with the traditional mushroom-shaped cork. (Trivia tip: the wire that holds down the traditional champagne cork, called the cage, is always twisted six times. Count it the next time you’re popping a bottle of sparkling wine.)

So what’s the difference between champagne, cava, and sparkling wine? Politics. In the 1920s, the wine-producing countries of the world signed a treaty which defined specific growing regions in their respective borders, within which wines could legally be produced with traditional names. For example, only sparkling wine produced in the legally-defined region of Champagne, in France, can be called champagne. In Italy, sparkling wine is called spumante; in Spain, it’s known as cava. And even in France, if you’re across the street from the legal boundary of the Champagne region, you can’t call your sparkling wine champagne.

Where it gets touchy is that the United States was not a signatory to this treaty, because when it was ratified by the European producers, the U.S. was in the middle of Prohibition. So some American sparkling wines are called “champagne,” though the first-rate houses have now taken to calling it “sparkling wine,” in voluntary compliance with the international nomenclature.

What grapes go into a sparkling wine? The two traditional components are chardonnay and pinot noir – yes, a red-wine grape in a white wine. A wine made exclusively from chardonnay will often be called a blanc de blancs (“white of whites”), and will often have a clean, subtle, focused flavor with a tart, crisp finish. Wines made from a mix may be labeled blanc de noirs (“white of blacks”), and tend to have a more complex, rich flavor with more body and nuance.

If you’re planning to pair the sparkling wine with food, a blanc de blancs is an excellent choice for oysters on the half-shell, cold prawns, poached halibut, and other light seafood (try an Argyle Knudsen Vineyard, about $35 retail, with citrus-marinated scallops). Blanc de noirs are often paired with herb-roasted chicken (try a Schramsberg blanc de noirs, about $25, with rosemary-grilled chicken breasts), and a big, flavorful blanc de noirs can even be paired with richer but still light foods such as cold salmon or pork roast. (I’ve even been known to serve Schramsberg’s Cuvee de Pinot, an all-pinot-noir champagne with a deep coppery hue that retails around $20, with roast goose at Christmas.)

What about Spanish cavas? While most cavas imported to the U.S. lack the finesse of their French equivalents, the favorable exchange rate with Spain means they are often a fantastic bargain. The widely-available Freixenet Cordon Negro (about $12, in the unmistakable black bottle), is of decent quality and makes a great party sparkler, or a nice “ace in the hole” to change an everyday meal into an Event. Offerings from Segura Viudas, another Spanish cava producer, are only a little more expensive but offer a touch more complexity and subtlety.

But for the top of the line, you’ve got to head for the cities of Reims and Epernay and try French champagne. Skip over the mid- to low-priced French sparklers like Moet et Chandon “White Star” or the base Mumm’s; you can get more flavorful, better-tasting wines, at a comparable price point, from the best vineyards of Oregon’s Willamette Valley or Napa in California. My “base” champagne for the past ten years or so has been Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin (about $40), in the characteristic saffron-colored label. Veuve invented dry champagne in the late 19th century (until then it was dosed heavily so that a lot of residual sugar remained, making early champagnes a sweet, dessert-oriented tipple), and their house style treads an elegant, refined path between complex and clean, defining class.

Everyone always wants to know what’s so special about Dom Perignon (about $100) that makes it the icon for the entire genre? Simply put, it’s flawless – but to my taste, it’s also not terribly interesting. It’s crisp, very dry, very focused, with perfect pinpoint carbonation and a clean finish that leaves you thirsty for more, but I like more character, complexity, and vibrancy in a sparkling wine. Which is why I say that I have two favorites, one if money is no object and one if I’m buying it myself.

When the sky’s the limit… Roederer Cristal (about $175) really is as good as it gets for me. As flawless as Dom but with more depth, a richer flavor and a more complex finish, Cristal has enough power to stand up to swordfish or grilled salmon, yet is a magnificent way to end a romantic evening with the one you love.

And if I’m buying out of my own pocket, my personal favorite sparkling wine is Argyle’s Extended Tirage (about $35). Produced in Dundee, Oregon by talented winemaker Rollin Soles, the Extended Tirage (or “ET”) spends a decade undergoing secondary fermentation. No, this doesn’t produce more bubbles – after a certain point fermentation stops as the alcohol level rises high enough to inhibit yeast growth – but the extended contact with the yeast gives this wine unbelievable complexity and details, and an aroma reminiscent of fresh-baked bread; the creamy mouth feel of its mostly chardonnay composition combines with the intense yeast to call to mind hot buttered toast. Hazelnuts and pears round out the aroma and the finish, and the carbonation is scintillating, intense and long-lasting. I have a bottle of 1996 Extended Tirage in my cellar at the moment, waiting a few months for our 30th anniversary. I don’t think we’ll serve it with anything, I suspect we’ll enjoy it with each other.

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