Loads of bubbles, lots of fruit and a pronounced minerality make Spanish sparkling wine a good choice for a New Year's celebrations. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Photo: Bill Hogan/MCT
Photo: Bill Hogan/MCT

The champagne difference

Remember that time a friend offered you a glass of champagne but poured a prosecco instead? It's a common mistake that will often be repeated throughout the holidays.

Champagne is the sparkling wine that is produced in a specific region of France northeast of Paris. There is a huge difference between champagne and other sparkling wines like prosecco, cava, cremant and the many new world bubblies. 

With a few exceptions that were grandfathered in when global commitments were hammered out (Korbel being one example), current trade policies prohibit labeling anything other than champagne as champagne. The Champenois guard their champagne identity jealously, and with good reason. 

The champagne region produces a unique product that is frequently imitated but seldom surpassed. One aspect of that is the terroir: The chalky soils instill a steely firmness in champagne. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the firm structure of champagne allows it to age beautifully for decades. Few other sparkling wines can make a similar claim. 

Beyond the physical characteristics of the champagne region that influence the final product, there is the matter of style. The better champagne houses reserve generous stocks of wine from the best vintages. The so-called reserve wines are then blended with current vintages to maintain quality as well as a specific house style. 

Few other wine regions that produce high-quality sparkling wines go to the trouble of building reserve stocks from their finest vintages. The reserve wines add richness and backbone to less successful vintages, allowing Champagne to deliver a consistent product even in less successful vintages. 

This sets champagne apart and is the primary reason to remember that champagne is champagne, and everything else is sparkling wine. 

Best Value 

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine. 

Cote Mas Cremant de Limoux 'St. Hilaire,' Brut Rose, Languedoc, France ($16) -- Cote Mas is one of the brands under the direction of Jean-Claude Mas, who is making some of the finest wines in France's Languedoc region these days. A blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc and pinot noir, this sparkling rose combines bright-red fruit notes with crisp acidity and a creamy finish. Nicely done. Rating: 90. 

Cote Mas Cremant de Limoux 'St. Hilaire,' Brut, Languedoc, France ($16) -- The abbey at Saint-Hilaire is thought by many to be the birthplace of sparkling wine. It is said Dom Perignon stayed there during a pilgrimage and learned the secret of the bubbles, which he took home with him to Champagne. The traditional grape of Limoux is mauzac, but this one is predominantly chardonnay with small rations of chenin blanc, pinot noir and mauzac. It is soft on the entry, shows notes of citrus and green apple, and has a medium body and a medium finish. It's an excellent value. Rating: 88. 

Valdo Brut Prosecco DOC, Italy ($15) -- This is a straightforward prosecco that is clean and refreshing. It shows notes of green apple with mouthwatering acidity and a dry finish. It's an excellent quaffer that will pair nicely with oysters, steamed clams, mussels and even grilled fish. Rating: 88. 

Tasting Notes 

Bruno Paillard Brut Premiere Cuvee, Champagne, France ($50) -- Bruno Paillard Champagnes are notable for their elegance with power, or perhaps, one might say, depth and power without weight. The non-vintage brut premiere cuvee is the personification of what Bruno does on a consistent basis: craft a Champagne that is well-balanced, complex and remarkably powerful yet subtle. It's pure magic. It's rich and creamy with firm acidity, lush notes of pear and delicious golden apple, and a long, tantalizing finish. Rating: 95. 

Andre Jacquart Brut 'Experience' Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France ($46) -- Jacquart's 'Experience' blanc de blancs exhibits a toasty brioche nose followed on the palate by notes of pear and crunchy green apple. It's rich and creamy yet powerful, with a firmness at its core that is one of the hallmarks of top-notch Champagne. The finish is long and impressive. Rating: 93. 

Valdo 'Oro Puro' Prosecco Valdobbiadene DOCG, Italy ($20) -- Valdobbiadene is the sweet spot for prosecco that produces by far the best wines, almost without exception. On the nose, this prosecco is exceptionally fruity with a strong note of pear, which follows on the palate and is joined by the taste of ripe apple. It's well-balanced with depth that is unusual in prosecco, and it has an impressive finish. Rating: 91. 

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