Uncork the mystery of your holiday bubbly

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Some things occur by happy accident, and such is the case with the discovery of Champagne, the effervescent wine that the unfortunate French queen Marie Antoinette is rumored to have said was the only drink that made women more beautiful.

Winters in the Champagne region of northeast France can be cold, and during the 17th century the chill air often stopped the locally grown wines in mid-fermentation. The warmth of the spring would ignite a second fermentation, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide that caused a pressure buildup, often leading to exploding wine bottles. Many winemakers were horrified, but it took Dom Pierre Pérignon, a nearly blind Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Hautvillers, to tame the vines and master the methode champenoise process.

"I am drinking stars," the monk is reported to have said upon tasting the delightful result of the double-fermentation process. Today, we all benefit from Dom Pérignon's wisdom and can taste the stars in a variety of sparkling wines.

The legal identity "Champagne" can include all sparkling wines from the famous French region, but sparklers from elsewhere cannot legally lay claim to the name. However, that doesn't mean there aren't perfectly good substitutes for your holiday festivities. 

Given that the price of Moet and Chandon's Dom Pérignon Champagne currently starts at $120 per bottle and goes up from there depending on the vintage and merchant, less expensive but equally enjoyable brands may be a better match for your budget. Here are some recommendations. (All wines are available throughout Wisconsin.)

Slightly Sweet

The La Marca Prosecco ($16) comes from northern Italy's Trevisio region. Produced from 100 percent Prosecco grapes, the wine arrives with hints of citrus, honey and floral patterns on the nose, its persistent bubbles delivering a similar combination plus essences of apple, grapefruit and a little minerality to the palate.

Pretty in Pink

The Henkell Trocken Rosé ($10), a rose-colored sparkler from Germany's leading wine region, offers a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes. The result is a full-bodied, well-balanced wine with a nose of fresh fruit and floral characters that make this wine a great value for the price.

The 2010 Sofia Blanc de Blanc ($19) is a sprightly, pale pink California blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Muscat, resulting in notes of green apple, pineapple, pears and quince. The wine is produced by Francis Ford Coppola and named after his daughter.

Banfi's Rosa Regale ($20) from Italy's Piedmont district, is a bright cranberry color, with flavors of raspberry and strawberry on the palate delivered with a crisp acidity. The wine, soft, with a luscious finish, is growing significantly in its popularity and availability.

Sparkling Bargains

The Mas Fin Cava Brut ($10) is grown and bottled in the Catalan country of El Penedés in northern Spain from native Xarel-lo, Macabeo and Parellada grapes. The result is an elegantly balanced wine with a nose of white flowers and citrus and a creamy palate of fresh stone fruits.

The 2008 Korbel Organic Brut ($16), like the name implies, is produced from organic French Columbard, Chardonnay and Sangiovese grapes grown in California's Sonoma Valley.  Apples, pears and white peaches dominate the wine's flavor profile, one that delivers medium dry with slightly savory notes at the end.

The Real Thing

The Piper-Heidsieck NV Brut ($45) from Champagne takes things up a notch. The blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes arrives in the glass with sparkling clarity and a pale gold color, its bouquet reminiscent of summer blossoms with hints of apple, pear and a warm toastiness. The blend transfers well to the palate, its delicate bubbles bursting with notes of citrus and other fruits.

Champagne Charles Heidsieck NV Brut Reserve ($58) pushes the envelope a little further with its deeper golden color. Its nose brings to mind cocoa, pralines and fresh almonds with the rich subtlety of tiramisu. The flavor of almonds carries over to the palate, with the addition of white peaches, pineapple and tropical fruits for a light-bodied, but still decadent blend.

Pol Roger Brut Reserve "White Foil" NV ($59) has long been considered a "gentlemen's" champagne, and was a favorite of Sir Winston Churchill and the British royal family. The blend of Pinot Noir (from the vineyards in Montagne de Reims), Pinot Meunier (from Petite Valle de Epernay) and Chardonnay (from Cote de Blancs) results in a wine of body and depth, freshness and fruit and elegance and finesse. Bright colors on the nose are followed by flavors of crystallized fruit, butterscotch and savory tart. There are few finer champagnes for the money.

Regardless of your choice, know that your holiday season will become that much more festive once you uncork a bottle and begin drinking stars.

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