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Bubbly madness 

Add sparkle to the season with the right wine

'Tis the season when corks pop and blurred visions of hangovers dance in our heads. And Dasher, Prancer and those other reindeer pounding on the roof don't make the ol' noggin throb less. But at least festive, fun sparkling wine makes the hangover worth having. Here are a few tips, and plenty of recommendations, to make the season easier:

What does "Brut" mean?

Dry, crisp sparkling wine. Ironically enough, "Extra Dry" is sweeter than Brut. "Demi Sec," or half-dry, is the dessert wine of sparklers.

What's the best way to chill sparkling wine?

Place the bottle in a bucket or sink filled half with water, half with ice, and a handful of salt -- should take about 20 minutes.

What is Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noirs?

Blanc de Blanc ("white of white") means the wine is produced using 100 percent white grapes, normally Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs has exclusively red grapes, normally Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Why do some bottles have a vintage date and not others?

A nonvintage (NV) label indicates a blend of juice from two or more years. Winemakers sometimes "declare a vintage" when they feel the wine is exceptional.

Under $15:

Vina La Rosa Chardonnay Sparkling Wine Brut (Chile). Sweetness (SW) = 1. $13. This delicious wine smells sweeter than it is, and is complex with layers of flavor ranging from strawberry and red apples to minerals and caramel. Bold enough to drink with food but silky enough to drink alone. 4 stars.

Segura Viudas Aria Brut Cava (Spain). SW = 2. $9. This consistent cava never disappoints, year after year. Tastes like toast sprinkled with lemon and some dirt, but in a good way. 3 stars.

Martini & Rossi Prosecco (Italy). SW = 3. $12. Only a bit fizzy, this slightly sweet wine is flowery, a little earthy, and follows up with a splash of citrus. Very easy to drink and lower in alcohol than many. 3 stars.

Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut (Washington). SW = 3. $9. Light and fun, with aromatic pear and a slight sweetness of ripe, red apples. Good value and easy to find. 3 stars.

Francois Montand Brut Blanc de Blanc (France). SW = 1. $10. Flinty and earthy like the forest after a rain. Robust with some tart lemon-lime action. 2 1/2 stars.


Mumm Cuvee Napa Blanc de Noirs (California). SW = 1. $18. Salmon in color, this dry, energizing rosé sparkler surprises you with delicate strawberry and raspberry, and a little bit of astringent tannin. Extraordinarily approachable. Can't beat the price -- it tastes a lot more expensive. 4 1/2 stars.

Domaine Carneros 2002 Brut (California). SW = 2. $20. Slightly fruity with a refreshingly bright raspberry personality. Toasted wheat bread finish with invigorating acidity following. 4 stars.

Montaudon Brut Champagne (France). SW = 3. $28. Smooth and drinkable with a slight bit of fruity, Sprite-like sweetness. 3 stars.

Mumm Napa Reserve Brut (California). SW = 1. $25. The most tart sparkler of the season for me, like drinking a Sauvignon Blanc with bubbles. Brisk grapefruit and lemon liven up a dull mouth. 2 1/2 stars.

$30 and up:

Schramsberg J. Schram 1999 (California). SW = 2. $80. Soft, creamy and absolutely dreamy. Generous and almost Chardonnay-ish in character, with subtle pineapple and green apple seducing your tongue. Flawless wine -- and it better be at this price. 5 stars.

Taittinger La Francaise Brut (France). SW = 2. $35. Charming and easy-going, with an edge of elegant sophistication. Flavors of fresh-baked bread and tangerine mark this fine example of French champagne. 4 stars.

Pommery Brut Champagne (France). SW = 2. $38. Traditional style with a bit of a twist -- crisp lemon-lime with creamy toasted bread, but also with vanilla and nuts like almonds. A great bottle that even comes in a fancy carrying case for those wanting to impress. 4 stars.

Perrier Jouet Grand Brut (France). SW = 2. $50. Classic French champagne with austere flavors not gushing at you, but approaching you slowly. Clean, lemon-lime on the tongue with a long, giving finish. 3 1/2 stars.

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