'Tis the Season

Break out the good stuff and pop those corks -- the holidays are here.



In my world, holidays are the time to gorge, stuff, and wallow in absurd decadence. Bring on the mayo-laden spinach dip, the gurgling, fatty eggnog and the sugar emblazoned Santa cookies – 'tis the season to throw calories to the hips and enjoy friends, food, and, of course, drink. Self-indulgence is quite possibly the most righteous gift we can give ourselves — how could this be a bad thing?

And what's more indulgent than loads of bubbles? Yes, this time of year, the corks pop and blurred visions of hangovers dance in our heads. But at least festive, fun bubbly makes the hangover worth enduring. And sparkling wine, with higher acidity and discreet fruit, pairs nicely with almost any cocktail morsel so all the hedonistic buffet goodies taste even better.

This season's best deals on bubbly are coming from Italy (Prosecco) and Spain (Cava), which normally retail for under $15. Seek out Mionetto or Casalnova from Italy and Spain's Segura Viudas. Once you hit the $20 mark, California's tastiest offerings come from Domaine Carneros, Mumm Napa and Roederer Estate. Once you pull out two bills, delicious French Champagne options open up, from Veuve Cliquot, Taittinger, and Pommery. Pop it open and spoil yourself – share if you're feeling charitable.

But bubbly doesn't have to rule the holidays. I take the "drink what you like" mantra to heart during this hectic, decadent month. If sweet wine is your bag, grab a slightly fizzy Moscato d'Asti from Italy, or, if buttery, toasty white wine warms your cockles, try 2005 Buena Vista Carneros Chardonnay ($20). With colder weather, heartier reds like red zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon hit the festive mark. For zins, Ridge or Rosenblum are the masters and Beaulieu Vineyards consistently produces reliable cabernets.

Or, to pamper yourself and your loved ones, open that special bottle you've been saving for "just the right occasion" (which never seems to arrive). Sometimes, the best occasion during the endless holidays is a shared with those you love. Here are a few tips for buying and serving sparkling wines, to make the decision, not the ache, easier:

• "Brut" means the wine is dry (there exists a parching "Extra Brut" but it's not often spied on the shelves). If you see a bottle labeled "Extra Dry," it's not drier — it's actually slightly sweeter than a Brut. Go figure. Demi Sec indicates a dessert bubbly, perfect alone or to top off a rich dinner.

• "Cava," "Prosecco," "Cremant," "Spumante" and "Champagne" are all words for sparkling wine, but from different wine regions and in different languages. Just like the brand Kleenex, the French own the "Champagne" brand, so to play in this fizzy sandbox, the other kids had to find their own name. The majority follow an identical process in birthing the bubbles in the bottle, so they aren't necessarily lesser quality wine, just less expensive. Of course, there's plenty of sparkling plunk out there, so shop carefully.

• 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. It's been done this way since Dom Perignon discovered the beauty of Champagne hundreds of years ago.

• The best way to chill a bottle is to place it in a bucket or sink with half ice, half water and a handful of salt for about 20 minutes. Of course, this means you didn't plan ahead and put it in the fridge for a few hours – the easiest route to the cold stuff.

• Drink bubbly cold – 43 to 48 degrees. The aromas and taste are best appreciated at this temperature. Once opened, those inexpensive sparkling wine stoppers keep the bubbles rolling for a day or two. 

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