Sparkling wine producers would pop their corks with joy if we embraced the notion that Champagne and its other bubbly brethren can be drunk all year, not just on New Year's Eve.
I'm all for it. After all, fine Champagne should be quality wine before the fizz. ("The bubbles are a fact," says David Moore of Moore Brothers, "but they do not define the great wines.")
But there's no denying the urge is stronger when the weather turns as cold as an ice bucket and the skies grow steely: A golden shimmer of bubbles rising in our glasses lifts the spirits, too.
What do I hope for each year? To discover some interesting bottles to celebrate - and at fair prices for maximum cheer.
And for pure variety's sake, Philly restaurants have been unearthing some lovely international surprises. At adventurous Jet Wine Bar (1525 South St.), I tasted my first Brazilian bubbly, an almond-scented brut by Salton that runs $9 a glass. An Austrian Grüner Veltliner called "Punkt Genau," from Weingut Ewald Gruber, is a racy way to launch an evening meal in the fireplace lounge at The Mildred (824 S. Eighth St.) in South Philly, the wine's brisk effervescence crisp with tart apple for $9 a glass or $43 a bottle.
At Fork (306 Market St.) in Old City, the sexy pour is as local as it gets, a most surprising brut rosé from Pinnacle Ridge in Kutztown (yes, Kutztown) that smelled like strawberries and cream, but dried out nicely on the palate to pair with surf clam ceviche and smoked pumpkin tortelloni. The winery, which ships to homes in state, is sold out until the next vintage arrives in February. So that means Fork, which sells it for $45 a bottle or $13 a glass, is one of the few places now to taste what's possible with Berks County vines.
It's no surprise that America can produce some top-notch sparklers. But the emergence of Oregon's Argyle to challenge some of California's best is something worth tasting for yourself. Of course, good luck nabbing one of the limited quantity of 2002 vintage "Extended Tirage" bottles expected to arrive soon (recently named Wine Spectator's No. 18 top wine of 2012). But the more widely distributed Argyle 2008 Brut (code 46042) shows extraordinary finesse and complexity for $22.99, juicy with exotic fruit, jasmine, and a long and sustained white pepper finish.
If you're a traditionalist, though, it's hard to go too wrong with French. And if you're motivated to look beyond the big-name houses (which often delegate the initial production stages of their lower-tier wines to cooperatives), you can find sparklers with quality, character, and value.
"Grower Champagne" is the hot buzzword here, referring to wines made by the estates that grow the grapes. And Pennsylvania has brought in one in particular, Jean-Noël Haton Brut Classic NV (code 33122), that's been discounted from $39.99 to $27.99, and is a good bargain for the real deal. Made from Pinot Miller and Pinot Noir in Damery, this light golden Champagne delivers a luxurious lace of fine bubbles that is refreshingly dry with orange pith, and aromatic with delicate flowers.
Few resources in the region can match Moore Brothers for sparkling wines with small-producer personality. Diebolt-Vallois and Bérèche are two of their most worthy prestige Champagnes. But I tasted two incredible values of crémant (any French sparkler made outside Champagne) that are perfect to pour a crowd. For something racy and bright with acidity, the Ampelidae Armance B, made in the Haut-Poitou from chardonnay and obscure Folle Blanche (once the principal grape of Armagnac), may be the best $16 sparkler I've tasted.
For a more elegant bottle, one of my favorite Alsatian producers, Domaine Barmès-Buecher, makes a 2009 Cremant d'Alsace for $18 that displays all the subtlety of its excellent still wines. Biodynamically farmed and produced, the pinot blanc and chardonnay (plus riesling and other grapes) give this wine a softer, less acidic edge. And the "Ancienne" method, which uses seasonal temperature shifts to self-carbonate, rather than a sugar injection, gives the bubbles an almost creamy texture.
For something really different, the Champagne Brut Rosé Delavenne Père et Fils, NV, is worth the splurge. How not to like a bottle from a place called Bouzy (at the foot of the Montagne de Reims)? It's impossible, especially considering how this unique rosé from 100 percent grand cru grapes (chardonnay, pinot noir, and Bouzy Rouge) morphs from the lush cassis fruit on the nose to dry tartness and an exotic savor of clove-stuck oranges, with a rich, almost brandied finish that shows best in regular wine glasses, rather than flutes.
At $50, it's a legitimate step into luxury Champagne bubbles. But if you wait until Dec. 27, when the Moore's sale price dips to $45, it's more fun. I may even want to drink it after New Year's, too.
Moore Brothers: 7200 N. Park Dr., Pennsauken, 888-686-6673; 1416 N. Dupont St., Wilmington, 302-498-0360. To locate the bottles available at retail in Pennsylvania, go to the Liquor Control Board's online home page (www.lcb.state.pa.us) and follow the "consumers" tab to the button for "product search."