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Sparkling wines good enough to drink all year long

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The other night, I drank a treasured $120 bottle of champagne with a sausage-and-green-pepper pizza. It was a minor homecoming celebration, but the champagne made it major. Made it better. Made it self-indulgent and disgustingly extravagant. I loved it.

During the holiday season, retailers brace themselves for the onslaught of sparkling-wine purchases. Sales trickle in the rest of the year, but when people think they should be drinking bubbly, they descend upon the stores. Seems sad that we reserve this amazing beverage for special seasons. Sparkling wine -- what bubbly should be called outside of France's Champagne region -- is wine, just like any other white or red, and the prices have come down remarkably of late. Italy and Spain are making very affordable and refreshing sparkling wines, and even California has some for less than $20. It often pairs better with food than white or red, and ... well, when a bottle pops, it's like there's something ingrained in our brain that announces, "Now it's a party." Shouldn't we make every day pop?

Here's a challenge: Buy a bottle of sparkling wine for the holidays, and buy two more for January. Drink them when you're happy, sullen, excited or depressed. I promise it'll turn your day into something worth celebrating.

A few tips for sparkling wines:

1. If you see a bottle labeled "extra dry," it actually means it's sweeter than a brut. Go figure, but it's the truth.

2. The best way to chill a sparkling bottle is to place it in a bucket or sink with half ice, half water and a handful of salt for about 20 minutes.

3. "Cava," "Prosecco," "Cremant," "Spumante" and "champagne" are all words for sparkling wine.

4. A vintage-dated sparkler is not necessarily better than non-vintage. If it has no date listed on the bottle, it only means the winemaker blended wines from two or more years to produce an often more complex wine.

Recommended Wines

Domaine Carneros 2003 Brut (California) SW = 2. $24. This California offering from Taittinger certainly won me over. Smells floral, with honeysuckle, green apple and peaches on your tongue. Fantastic value. 4.5 stars

Pommery 1995 Grand Cru Brut (France) SW = 1. $50. Extraordinarily good, with a wholesome baked bread backbone and a tart-lemon and ripe-peach taste. Long finish that begs for more. 4.5 stars

Casalnova Prosecco (Italy) SW = 3. $15. Bursting with pear, dried banana and mango, this tropical delight seduced everyone who tried it. Although it has some sweetness, it's light, balanced and invigorating. 4.5 stars

Mionetto Prosecco Brut (Italy) SW = 2. $12. Vibrant citrus and pear, with some almond cookie worked in there. 4 stars.

Taittinger Prestige Rosé (France) SW = 1. $60. Green apple and tart cranberry, followed by a vanilla-tinged earthiness. A bit pricey, but worth it. I tried the other French Taittingers, but they were so woody, they were almost undrinkable. 4 stars.

Shramsberg 2002 Blanc de Noir (California) SW = 1. $33. Earthy, with a baked-pear, bread character. Finishes with a tart citrus wash that freshens your mouth. 4 stars.

Shramsberg 2003 Brut Rosé (California) SW = 1. $40. Ripe raspberry with a dry, salty finish. Exceptional winery with very consistent sparkling wines. 3.5 stars.

Mumm Cuvée Napa Cuvée M (California) SW = 3. $19. Perfumey with sweet cherry almost like cough syrup, a dash of earthiness and a finish so clean it's almost nonexistent. 3.5 stars.

Oudinot Extra Dry (France) SW = 4. $27. This French champagne sports an apple Jolly Rancher flavor, backed by some toasty vanilla. 3.5 stars.

Mumm Cuvée Napa 2002 Blancs de Blanc (California) SW = 2. $26. Toasty with a minerally lemon flavor and an interesting baby aspirin thing. Another consistently great sparkling wine house. 3 stars.

Scharffenberger Brut (California) Sw = 3. $15. Owned by French champagne house Roederer, these guys have produced a rich, yeasty sparkler with peaches, pear and honey stealing the show. Slightly sweet. 3 stars.

Sweetness (SW) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana. To comment on this story, go to Food & Drink at atlanta.creativeloafing.com.

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