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BERGER: Champagne season is near

I have never been able to figure out why Champagne is seen primarily as a celebratory wine. It's so nice with the right food that it could easily be served year-around with a wide array of dishes.

Indeed, there is more myth than fact surrounding sparkling wines, which will sell more quickly from now to the end of the year than it does for the rest of the year. We are seeing far more bubbly than ever, with the advent of wines called sparkling Moscato, which are both bubbly as well as pretty sweet.

Many U.S. wineries make sparkling wines, but only a small handful of top-rate producers exist. One reason for this is the high cost of making the stuff. It's true that there are a lot of inexpensive bubble-laced wines out there, but those that sell for about $5 or so typically are made by a bulk (or Charmat) process that creates the bubbles in a few weeks. Usually such wines are made from inexpensive grapes with little character, and the wines are typically made sweet enough to have a built-in market: cola drinkers.

When made using the traditional French-devised method, it takes years, two separate fermentations, special aging, and calls for using high-caliber grapes, usually chardonnay and pinot noir. It's no wonder that the best Champagnes are well over $100 a bottle, and why more and more California sparkling wine makers are releasing "tete de cuv?" wines that are nearing the $100 mark -- to wide acceptance.

I spoke with three sparkling wine makers over the last two weeks, each of whom is making an ultra-high-priced wine. Each man said sales of the high-end stuff (all three are priced at $80 to $100 a bottle) said sales of these wines have been brisk.

"With the economy the way it is?" I asked.

Said one in response, "There's an old saying: you can tell business is preparing for an upturn in six months when sales of high-end bubbly sells go up. People are celebrating something."

Celebrating with sparkling wine or Champagne is still the way it is most widely used, but when served with food, it offers superb balance for seafood dishes done with lemon or lime, as well as other lighter dishes.

Tip: Never open a bottle until it is already chilled. Opening a room-temperature bubbly and then chilling it robs the wine of some of the precious bubbles.

Tip: Never use a corkscrew to remove the cork. Best bet is to place a towel over the cork, loosen the wire while keeping pressure on the cork, and then with the bottle pointed away from people and breakables, slowly turn the bottle to loosen the cork.

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