For New Year’s, impress your friends with great champagnes and sparkling wines

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The temperature has dropped, signaling that New Year’s Eve - when friends and family come together to share warmth and cheer - approaches. Chances are, some form of sparkling wine will be poured.

Traditional champagne might be the first thing that comes to mind - after all, it dates back to 17th-century France. It’s often raised in toast at wedding receptions, and it’s what’s in your glass when the ball drops on New Year’s.

The Russian Czars appreciated it, and even Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV of France, liked champagne. "[Champagne] is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking," she said.

Today champagne shares the stage with sparkling wines from around the world. If you’re shopping for a sparkling wine, you’ll see names like Prosecco from Italy and Cava from Spain. You’ll find there are sparkling wines from Australia, California - even South Africa.

Since only wines produced in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne, the term "traditional method," or "classic method" (or a translation thereof) is often used on labels to indicate that a sparkling wine has been made in the fashion of champagne - most importantly, that it was fermented in the bottle. So understanding a little about champagne can go a long way towards understanding the nuances of the vast array of sparkling wines.

Popular myth credits Dom Perignon, a 17th-century Benedictine monk, with the invention of champagne, but the development can’t be attributed to one person. Sparkling wine evolved over time. Cold winters in the Champagne region often caused wine in the cellar to stop fermenting until spring when a secondary fermentation would start. The secondary fermentation created carbonation many winemakers struggled to avoid. Eventually, they realized that the secondary fermentation could be harnessed to make a refreshing and wonderful wine that became known as champagne.

Bottle fermentation is what gives champagne and many sparkling wines their character and individuality. The longer a sparkling wine is allowed to ferment in bottle ("left on the lees") before "degorgement" (when the spent yeast is removed), the richer and more complex the wine.

After degorgement, the bottle is topped with a sweetened reserve wine before being recapped. The amount of sweetness is indicated on the label as Extra Brut - extremely dry with virtually no sugar added; Brut (the most common style) - very dry, less than 1.5 percent sugar; Extra dry - which is slightly less dry than Brut; and, increasingly sweet, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux.

What to look for

Champagne is no longer just a drink for royalty. You can find vintage champagnes from small estates at less than astronomical cost. A champagne can be declared vintage only on years when conditions yield an exceptional harvest, and it must consist entirely of wine from that year.

For example, 1996 was a notable vintage year, and the ’96 Pierre Gimonnet Blanc de Blanc ($55), is a fine example of an elegant vintage champagne that can be had for half the price of more familiar names like Veuve Cliquot or Roederer. A "blanc de blanc" is made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes. This one has an elegant complexity with notes of citrus and a subtle finish. The Pierre Gimonnet spent six years on the lees. And that’s evident in both its depth, and its 93 point score in "Wine Spectator" magazine.

But don’t limit yourself to considering champagne. There are a number of alternatives at a range of prices. Illuminati Brut ($29), a wonderful Italian "metodo classico spumante" (which translates as "foaming"), is derived from indigenous grapes grown on the Illuminati family estate in northern Abruzzo. Three years on the lees imparts notes of brioche to this complex sparkler.

Also from Italy, Prosecco is a popular sparkling wine. Its simple - yet refreshing - taste makes it a perfect aperitif. Prosecco undergoes second fermentation in pressurized tanks instead of in bottle. This helps keep the cost down; Pisani, at $11, is a good example. With the light and fruity body typical of Prosecco, Pisani has honeysuckle and ripe peach aromas.

Spain has a celebrated sparkling wine called Cava. After visiting France in the 1800s, José Raventós brought the Champagne method to his estate in Penedès. The Ravéntos family continues a tradition of excellence with L’Hereu de Ravéntos i Blanc ($14), a bright, sparkling wine with a pale straw color. Its year spent on lees imparts a nice essence of yeast balanced by hints of lemon and apple.

Sparkling wine has even made its way to South Africa. Graham Beck has been making it since 1991 at his Robertson Cellar on the Western Cape. In 1994, his sparkling wine was served at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. The Graham Beck Brut ($16) spends two years in the bottle and pours with a vigorous sparkle.

The wines mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg, but with this little bit of knowledge, you’ll be able to navigate the bubbly at your local Brooklyn wine shop.

Ian Wolff is a manager at The Greene Grape, located at 765 Fulton St. between South Portland Avenue and South Oxford Street in Fort Greene. For more information, e-mail or call (718) 797-9463.

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