It's time to think about sparkling wine

More champagne is consumed about this time of year than any other. Sure, you sip champagne when you toast the bride and groom and maybe you'll pop a cork when the son finally moves into his own house. But, by and large, you are more likely to consume some bubbly to either admire the Christmas tree or ring in the new year.

About 22 percent of champagne sales come in December and more than 65 percent of consumers say they share it with a celebration.

Alas, we too are victims of associating sparkling wine -- the generic term for champagne -- with the holidays. For about 15 years we have been organizing a champagne dinner at a different restaurant where we share bubbles and friendship among six loyal couples . Other than that, it has been an occasional sip of prosécco during the summer.

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And that brings us to a point. Never before has sparkling wine been so affordable.  Prosécco costs less than $20 and for that reason alone sales are skyrocketing.  Until recently, champagne was seen as a drink for the rich aboard their yachts or aside their pools.

Prosécco -- and Spanish cava -- may be a bane for champagne producers, but it gets people into the sparkling wine market. Many of them move up to a champagne, if not just for a special occasion.

Perhaps this year you have something to celebrate, even if it's just good health, employment or your alma mater in a bowl game.  Join the masses and have a glass of sparkling wine.

In the Italian prosécco category, we recommend Mionetto, La Marca, Ruffino. Prosécco is made mostly from the glera grape and is simple and lively on the palate. It's a great drink to serve as an aperitif or to mix into various cocktails.

Spanish cava is making headway into the market as well and its price point is similar to that of prosécco.  However, we don't think that, as a lot, they are consistent. Some brands to look for: Paul Cheneau, Pere Ventura, Segura Viudas.

California and Oregon are making terrific sparkling wines that may cost more than your average prosécco but they aren't as expensive as luxurious champagnes. Champagne too can be bought for reasonable prices, thanks to the competition.

For champagne bargains, look to Nicolas Feuillatte and Moet. If price isn't an object, look for Cristal, Taittinger, Billecart-Salmon and Veuve Cliquot. There is nothing more luxurious to us than Billecart-Salmon's rosé.

Here are some recommendations:

Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage Brut 2006 ($60). Chief winemaker Benoit Gouez has fashioned a wonderfully luxurious champagne from the 2006 vintage.  Aged for 7 years in the cellars before release, it has a broad and floral nose with delicate bubbles and

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Reserve X'Ploration ($36). This limited edition champagne made for the holiday season gets consumers into a luxury champagne with reasonable cost.  Beautifully packaged with a gold sleeve, it makes a statement on the table -- and in the glass. Its blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier evokes apple and pear notes.

J Vineyards & Winery Brut Rosé ($38).   You won't be disappointed with this reasonably priced sparkling rosé from the Russian River Valley. Made largely from pinot noir grapes, it has a nice balance of luxury and fruit with exotic tangerine and raspberry flavors. This would make for a good aperitif to set the mood of any party or you can easily match it with salmon, shrimp or scallops.

Mumm Napa Brut Reserve Rosé ($39). Mumm makes a signature brut prestige that is a steal for $22, but we're always looking for a reasonably priced rosé to add a dash of color to the holiday. You won't go wrong with this versatile blend of pinot noir and chardonnay.   You could serve this as an apertif or alongside salmon, turkey, ham and other simple entrees or appetizers.

Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2004 ($85). The Grand Vintage is made in only great years and is the cellar master's personal expression of the year's vintage. This one from 2004 shows off ripe grapes and a broad dimension with honeysuckles and floral aromas, peach and pineapple flavors and a long, elegant finish. It is an almost equal blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

ANOTHER LOOK AT BEAULIEU VINEYARDS

We hadn’t tasted much Beaulieu Vineyards wines in recent years. There was a time in the 1980’s when BV, as it’s commonly known, was a mainstay of our premium domestic wine consumption. A good friend -- George Foote, who represented BV at the time -- kept us up to date with current vintages as they were rolled out. George moved on, and the premium California wine scene became much more diverse and crowded.

BV seemed to drop off our radar screen. Meanwhile, BV underwent a bewildering succession of corporate ownership changes beginning from 1969 when Heublein purchased BV.  Today, BV is owned by British-based Diagio, the world’s largest international producer of spirits, and a major producer of beer and wine.

This is a far cry from it’s founding in 1900 by Georges de Latour, a Frenchman who assembled the vineyards that now make up this iconic winery. BV survived and in fact thrived during Prohibition by supplying sacramental wine to the Catholic Church in San Francisco. But one of the most significant contributions to BV by Georges de Latour was the hiring of Russian-born winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff  in 1938. He selected a particularly tasty portion of the 1936 cabernet sauvignon to become the first BV Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tchelistcheff remained winemaker at BV until 1973 and established BV as one of the premier California wineries by crafting wines that still provide pleasure today. Since 2009 Jeffrey Stambor has been head winemaker at BV. We recently had an opportunity to taste his current releases in the company of our old friend George Foote, who shared a 30-year-old bottle of BV Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon – but more on that later.                                                                                         

The Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2011 ($20), is a very drinkable wine today, but one that could easily age for 3-5 years. This is a very well-balanced wine that offers intense cherry flavors and nose, and just a whiff of eucalyptus and vanilla oak to add some complexity. 

We really enjoyed the Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Rutherford 2011 ($32). This is an old favorite of ours that offers good value for the quality in the bottle.  The wine didn’t disappoint and had a pleasant fruity, spicy nose, and black cherry and plum flavors. Soft tannins and good structure invite consumption now. However, a bit of age will reward the patient.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($135) displayed an enticing elegance and complexity. The 2011 growing season was notably cool, resulting in a nice minerality in addition to the ripe cherry fruit in the nose and mouth with a hint of cacao.                    

We’ve had older vintages of Beaulieu Georges de Latour and they almost never disappoint. The 1984 version that George Foote supplied was a great example of what older California wines can produce, offering dried fruit and nutty nose with port-like flavors. Very complex and fun to drink.