It's none too early to integrate holiday wines into your menu planning. This year Christmas comes at the end of its week, on a Saturday, and if you put off your menu picks, say, a fresh turkey or a baked ham, to the beginning of that week you may find that the choices will have become painfully limited.
A bubbly to welcome the new year? Even the champagne you consider appropriate may be in short supply, if it's available at all, or you may only find the more exotic and costly grades.
Shop early. Wine will keep quite as long as the prebaked ham.
That said, here are some suggestions for sparkling wines in a variety of types and a range of prices, and after that I'll append my annual caution about the violence of which these bottles, if mishandled, are capable.
It's sometimes said that top-shelf champagnes are sold to impress someone, and the $200 which will buy you a bottle of Cristal is surely impressive. But a French champagne on the second shelf down may sell for $60-plus if vintage (wine of a single year), $30 to $40 if non-vintage. The pricing difference reflects scarcity; a nonvintage champagne is not necessarily as good as its prestigious sibling.
Speaking of difference, a connoisseur can tell at a sip that a glass is a very good American sparkling wine, for instance a Schramsberg, a Californian Mumm, or a Pacific Echo, or that it is a corresponding nonchampagne European sparkler selling for a few dollars less than the midprice nonvintage French that to you or me may seem a best-buy snooty label.
But all is not snobbery; even you or I will need no more than a sip to recognize Cook's, say, or another high-volume, inexpensive bottle.
That reminds me to say that champagnes do not taste the same; there's no need to be embarrassed if you happen not to swoon over a glass of Dom Perignon. Moet-et-Chandon is the Cadillac of champagnes, very well-made and comfortably capitalized; still, a Ford will get you back to Paris.
My choice of a sparkling wine for a succulent holiday dinner, however, is both well-made and very reasonably priced: Fireland's Lake Erie riesling champagne (about $15), even though the use of the name is not exactly what it should be; not made in France, that is. And as we sit to the table, heavy-laden with good things to eat, we move from a toast in the Fireland's riesling to the same wine with the dinner.
SPARKLING WINES all are essentially the same, though different techniques are used to make them. A harmless gas, carbon dioxide, is dissolved (forced to dissolve, in fact) by partly confining the fermentation of the wine inside the bottle or a sealed tank. A large, tight-fitting cork maintains the pressure captured in a carefully selected bottle free of flaws or weakness, and a wire tightly binding cork and bottle to one another is an additional seal, keeping up the pressure (which may reach as much as six atmospheres). Hence some rules:
1. Do not shake the bottle or warm it;
2. First tear away the foil, then unwind the wire; it takes six turns.
3. Firmly grasp and carefully loosen the cork in one hand, holding the bottle with the other;
4. Don't point the bottle toward anyone, whether or not the cork is loosening.
5. The purpose of a towel wrapped around the bottle as you uncork it is less to soak up overflow than to contain pieces of glass if the bottle breaks.
If someone in the company delights in watching champagne bubbling joyously up and out, you may want to bear in mind that in a couple seconds it can bubble off $10 or $15 of Dom Perignon; the champagne is better sipped than seen.