For many, sparkling-wine season comes only in December and is divided into two worlds: a small group of old-reliable big names, and a vast world of unknowns that may intrigue, but are too unfamiliar to risk a once-a-year purchase that rarely comes cheap. This year, we asked five local wine experts for guidance to open your world of bubbles with picks for splurge and value bottles. Not surprisingly, many are not the usual famous labels - but "grower" Champagnes (produced by the same estate that grows the grapes), sparkling reds (Lambrusco is back!), and a couple of rarities you might need to scramble to obtain. Some are so good, though, that you won't wait until December next year to stock up.
Steve Wildy, Vetri restaurants beverage director:
Value: Le Vigne di Alice, "Osé" Vino Spumante Rose Brut NV (Veneto, Italy), $17.99 in Pa. (code 43572). From two sisters-in-law who have made sparkling wine their life's work; they import Champagne to Italy in addition to producing some of the region's most beautiful Prosecco. A splash of the funky red Marzemino grape adds extra personality in the form of lavender, violets, red raspberries, and color.
Splurge: Agrapart et Fils, "7 Crus" Champagne 1er Cru NV (Avize, France). Very limited stocks only in South Jersey at Wine Works ($44.98) in Marlton and Joe Canal's ($49.99) in West Deptford. All organic fruit from seven of the most prized vineyards, with an impressively gymnastic penchant for vaulting from lavishly opulent to piercingly mineral between sips. "Splurge" is a relative term when you consider this "grower" Champagne sticks the landing better than many famous maisons' "Tête de Cuvées," at a fraction of the price.
Michael McCauley, wine director and partner of the Tria Cafes and Taproom:
Value 1: Prosecco "Brut," Zardetto, NV (Veneto, Italy), $15.99 (code 6871). Fresh and fruity Venetian beauty crafted from the Glera grape in the Charmat method (secondary fermentation in tanks, rather than in bottle like Champagne). Great as a sparkling starter to whet your appetite for dinner or kick off the party.
Value 2: Crémant de Loire, Château De L'Eperonnière 2009 (Loire, France), $22.99 (code 45111). Creamy chenin blanc crafted using the méthode Champenoise and imported by Neal Rosenthal with baked apple, apricot, and quince fruit. Perfect with smoked fish, pâté and sweets.
Splurge: Magnum Champagne "Blanc de Blancs," Le Mesnil, nonvintage, (Côtes de Blanc, Champagne) $74.99 (code 45073). Perfect companion for caviar with toasty, brioche-y notes, golden delicious apple fruit, and a chalky finish with fine bubbles. Made from the same vineyard fruit as the famed and infamously expensive Krug Champagne. Great deal on a magnum for a New Year's splurge.
Tim Kweeder, partner, wine guru (et al.) of Petruce Et Al.
Value: Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Rive dei Ciliegie Francesco Vezzelli 2013, $17, at Moore Bros. Wine Co. in Pennsauken. Just a short commute over the Ben Franklin Bridge exist cheaper gas, McMillan's doughnuts, and a $17 bottle of fizzy red wine that is as universal as a smile. The perfect partner for pizza, grandma's Sunday lasagne, the first snowstorm barbecue - or even a fun alternative for a wedding toast.
Splurge: Pierre Gimonnet Brut Blanc de Blancs 1er Cru Brut, $47.99 (code 46900). Stop looking for point scores and just flip around the bottle to check the importer. Terry Theise was bringing in "grower Champagne" when it was an underdog. A handful of his selections can be found at the 1218 Chestnut St. store, but the one that stands out is this lively, balanced and not over-manipulated grower Champagne for under $50.
Max Gottesfeld, one of the PLCB's best wine specialists, works at the 1218 Chestnut St. store.
Value: Cleto Chiarli e Figli Vecchia Modena "Premium" Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco nonvintage $14.99 (code 46314). A lot of people still think Lambrusco is just a simple sweet wine. This rosé is a game-changer for those looking for something crisp. A bright and exciting nose with lots of cranberries and wild strawberries is followed by saberlike acidity. It's the go-to Lambrusco from the village of Sorbrara for those in the wine world, and received Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso in 2010 and 2012.
Splurge: Champagne Moutard Cuvée Six Cepages Brut 2007 $56.99 (code 48710). Inspired by old books that referred to six-grape blends, owner Francois Moutard created this full and luxurious blend of chardonnay, arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Great golden color, with super-fine mousse, it has a seductive nose of ripe peaches followed by toast, honey, lemon custard, and toasted nuts, and a long crisp finish. This is the sort of Champers that will impress your friends.
Gordana Kostovski, sommelier at Volvér, stocks more than 100 Champagnes and sparkling wines.
Value: Argyle Brut Willamette Valley $19.99 (code 6784). Located in the Willamette Valley, Argyle Winery has the perfect terroir for producing world-class méthode Champenoise sparkling wines. The cool climate offers the perfect conditions for growing chardonnay and pinot noir. Their Brut offers notes of bright citrus that are balanced by toasty, creamy luxury and finesse. Exceptional reputation and great value.
Splurges: Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve $34.99 (code 8568), and Palmes d'Or Brut 1999 $129.99 (36256). I am a big Nicolas Feuillatte fan. The Brut Réserve is super-approachable and versatile, with delicate initial fruit that leads to elegance. The Palmes d'Or represents the essence of art in the form of Champagne and packaging. The finest Grand Crus are aged and blended for a complex nuttiness that's interwoven with fruit and spice. Chardonnay, for finesse, is used from Chouilly, Cramant, Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize et Montgueux. Pinot noir, for body, comes from Bouzy, Verzy, Verzenay, Aÿ et Ambonnay. The beautiful honeycomb bottle makes a great gift.