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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ring in 1998 In Good Taste At a Nice Price




It really is a pity to have to ring in the new year in an economical fashion, but sometimes it's necessary.


On New Year's Eve two years from now, when we ring in 2000, let's damn the cost, throw caution to the wind and drain bottles of the finest vintage champagne.


But the year at hand is merely 1998 -- another 12 months of credit-card bills, mortgage payments, car loans and all the other annoyances that stand between us and total self-indulgence.


So Dom Perignon is out. Even the typical nonvintage brut champagne looks pricey at $25 to $35, especially when you're thinking about multiple bottles. In a spirit of frugality -- but not excruciating frugality -- we'll hold the line at $20. Sparkling-wine lovers can revel quite elegantly in this range.


California, in particular, is producing a bevy of lively, complex, well-made sparkling wines that do at least a reasonable imitation of true champagne. The two stars of the tasting represent far different approaches to making sparkling wine in California.


The 1989 Gloria Ferrer Brut Royal Cuvee ($18) lets its ripe California fruit shine through -- with fascinating hints of bing cherry, strawberry and apple. It's a wine of intensity and complexity that sets its own style instead of imitating champagne.


The Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($20, but widely available on sale for as low as $15) takes an entirely different road. Roederer's cool Mendocino County vineyards produce some of the most champagne-like grapes coming out of California today, and the results show in the bottle. With its yeasty, toasty flavors and tight-beaded bubbles, Roederer comes as close as any sparkling wine in California to replicating the style of champagne.


Spanish cava -- Spain's version of sparkling wine -- is inexpensive and popular but usually lacks the class of sparkling wines made from the chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier of champagne. Usually, there's some kind of funky odor or flavor that detracts from the experience.


One cava that has consistently avoided these pitfalls, while keeping its low price, is Paul Chenau Brut Blanc de Blancs ($8.49). There's a slight earthiness that distinguishes it from champagne or California sparkling wine, but this earthiness doesn't get out of hand. Finally, France itself produces some tasty budget alternatives to champagne. One of the better ones is the 1985 Chateau Moncontour ($15), a sparkling Vouvray from the Loire Valley.


Made from the chenin blanc grape, the Moncontour displays more obvious fruitiness and acidity than any champagne. Nevertheless, it is often served as the "house champagne'' in French restaurants in this country. The purist in me objects to the practice -- as would any champagne producer -- but I haven't noticed any other diners complaining.