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Sparkling wines to make your parties pop.

There is a nice step up the ladder from $10 to $20 in the large category called New World sparkling wine. The range of flavors and styles is immense, running the gamut from fun to serious.

The sleeper of the year is Mountain Dome from Spokane, Wash. The humorous gnome-laden label disguises the well-crafted sparkler that lies inside. Their Brut non-vintage is an excellent lighter-bodied sparkler. At $15 a bottle it offers serious quality. Both the Mountain Dome Vintage Brut, 1995 ($23), and their Brut Rose ($23) are superb with food.

Gruet from New Mexico is an excellent New World sparkler. This is not a flash-in-the-pan region or winery — they have been honing their skills for years. The Gruet family hails originally from the Champagne region in France. Their basic brut for $13 is crisp, light and enjoyable. Their Blanc de Noir is made of fuller, sturdier stuff. The 75 percent pinot rounds out the flavor. It is a bargain at $15.

One of the exciting brands to surge out of the pack in California is Gloria Ferrer located in Sonoma. They are owned by the Spanish Cava giant Freixenet. They have mastered three distinct sparkling styles well. Their Blanc de Noir ($18) is composed primarily of pinot noir grapes. The salmon color and juicy pinot flavors harmonize well with food. Their Royal Cuvee Brut Vintage, 1993 ($23) is a serious French Champagne lookalike. At 60 percent pinot noir and 40 percent Chardonnay, the balance comes from the light grape and the strength from the darker.

California high-quality sparklers have progressed at a feverish pace over the past few years. Some of the better ones to look for are Iron Horse, Domaine Carneros, J. Wine Co., Piper Sonoma, Roederer and Pacific Echo.

French Champagne is always the highest regarded and the benchmark of all wine with bubbles. My two basic classifications are the ones you have heard of and the ones you haven't. Brand awareness is a huge part of the lives of Champagne houses, and it is because of this that you will always know more names than you think you do.

There are two basic styles of flavors of Champagne, the light lemony style and the toasty one. A good place to start is with an old familiar brand Perrier Jouet Non-Vintage Brut ($36). This is the benchmark for the lemony, light ethereal Champagne. The bubbles are small and they swarm over your glass. This is Champagne at its most refreshing.

At the other end of the spectrum is Veuve Cliquot Non-Vintage Brut ($45). It is an equally well-known brand, but it is in the toasty, biscuity style. This one cries out for food to accompany it.

The smaller brands can be excellent finds in high-quality Champagne. Roger Pouillon Brut Rose, Non-Vintage ($30) is a strawberry confection made by a small grower. It isn't sweet, just fruity, but the secret is the hint of toastiness that gives it the backbone to let it work effortlessly with food.

Now that we have the bubbles figured out, it is time to think about the food. The Spanish Cavas would work well in an informal setting with little mozzarella and tomato tartlets, eggplant and basil pizza squares, and guacamole and chips. Remember, sparkling wines are versatile.

For the New World end of the spectrum the food becomes more formal because the sparklers are more sophisticated. Have some fun and serve little curry plates or perhaps dim sum. Smoked salmon always does well here.

Save your best for the real thing — Champagne. Lobster or sushi, or prawns and scallops are all good choices with a luxury wine. Champagne is also a clincher with dessert.

Now that it is cooler and everyone is back in town, the party is more interesting and exciting when there are bubbles in your glass. HS



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