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How to pick a good sparkling wine

It's all about reading the label carefully, in search of some key info.

Sparkling wine labels read a little differently than standard still wines.
Sparkling wine labels read a little differently than standard still wines.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

Sparkling wines make a festive way to ring in the new year, but they can be frustrating to shop for.

They are an exception among wines in that their labels rarely mention grape varieties but often make prominent statements about the methods by which they’re made. Among standard still wines, the fruit itself is the key quality variable; wine-making techniques are just icing on the cake. That’s because the flavor potential is largely predetermined by the traits present in their grapes at harvest.

These priorities are reversed in the realm of bubbles, though. Here, the level of craftsmanship of the wine-making process tends to trump the flavor of the raw materials. Why? Making a wine sparkle requires two steps: First, we make a standard still wine; then, that wine undergoes a second fermentation to add carbonation. The base wines produced in the first part need to be lightweight and neutral, so it is the second step that has the biggest impact on how the wine tastes, on its mouthfeel, and therefore on its perceived quality.

The original 19th-century technique pioneered in the Champagne region of France, once known as the Champagne method but now dubbed the “traditional method,” still produces the best results. Now practiced worldwide, the wines it produces are prized for their delicate flavors of baked goods, tiny filigree of bubbles, and aftertaste that finishes with finesse.

This delicious example from California’s Mendocino County is made in the image of French Champagne, using the same grapes and techniques. Dry and delicious, it offers flavors of lemon tarts and sour apples balanced and enriched with a lingering flavor of flaky croissants — all at a temptingly fair price.

Scharffenberger “Brut Excellence” — Mendocino, Calif. (12% ABV)

On sale for $17.99 through Jan. 5 (regularly $19.99); PLCB Item #1475

Also available at: Canal’s in Mt. Ephraim, N.J., for $19.99; Joe Canal’s in Lawrenceville, N.J., for $22.99; Traino’s Wine & Spirits in Mt. Laurel and Voorhees, N.J., for $22.99; Martin’s Liquors in Mt. Laurel, N.J., for $24.99