In recent weeks, I have tasted more than three dozen sparkling wines, all bought in Maryland. These are some of the highlights and lowlights.
The prices given represent what I paid, but there are wide variations as different stores put different wines on sale during the holidays.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($31): Exceptional intensity, great delicacy. No outstanding single characteristic, just a beautifully integrated whole, with flavors that bore right into the brain's pleasure centers. The essence of Champagne.
*Veuve Clicqot Ponsardin Brut ($18/half bottle): Exceptional toastiness, yeast. A full-bodied, rich wine of luxury cuvee caliber. A complete wine that begs to be paired with food.
*Delamotte Pere & Fils Brut ($21): A little-known house that deserves more acclaim, Delamotte produces lovely wines across the board. Its brut is a wine with perfect pitch, elegant to an extreme, with delightful intensity.
*Bollinger Special Cuvee ($28): Not as big as Bollinger was a few years ago, but still a mighty oak among Champagnes. It's still one of the most flavorful Champagnes, and one of the best at table.
*Taittinger Brut "La Francaise" ($30): Toasty, deep and flavorful, with great depth and length. More full-bodied than I recalled, but still more a wine of finesse than power.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($22/sale): Crisp and cutting flavor. Light toast, an elegant, dancing wine -- pure class.
*A. Charbaut & Fils Blanc de Blancs ($21): Delicate, lightly toasty, not the edge and weight of a red-white blend but has a subtle elegance.
*Taillevent Grande Reserve Brut ($19/sale): A very good value at this price, this is a structured, complete wine, a step below those above but still quite lovely.
*Mumm Cordon Rouge ($27)
*Drappier Carte d'Or ($16/sale).
*Pol Roger Brut ($16/sale).
*Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial ($18/half bottle): Very toasty and yeasty but too much of a good thing, this goes beyond intensity to a rather coarse obviousness. Not unpleasant, but lacks the finesse you expect of Champagne.
*1986 Iron Horse Brut, Green Valley ($19). Fresh, intense and lively. No heaviness or exotic fruit, just a dancing feel to it. Hints of green apple, bread and lemon. A match for all but the most distinguished Champagnes.
*1987 Iron Horse Blanc de Noirs "Wedding Cuvee" ($19). Crisp and stylish, with more edge but less elegance than the brut. A little more mineral and yeast flavor would help this, but it's still a very fine wine, with an affinity for food.
*Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut ($17.59). Yeasty, toasty aromas, fine balance and intensity. It has a little more rawness around the edge than true Champagne, but the difference is ever so slight.
*1986 Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs ($19): Light, clean and elegant. Lacks the intensity of the Iron Horse Brut but quite elegant, gentle wine. Good for an all-chardonnay wine, but an illustration of why a blend is better.
*1986 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley ($21): A very fruity wine that doesn't attempt to replicate Champagne. Individualistic, with hints of yeast and lemon. Flamboyant compared with Champagne, but not as long a finish.
*Domaine Carneros Brut ($18): Clean but undistinguished, grapefruity.
*Mumm Cuvee Napa ($15): Proof that a Napa origin is nothing to brag about in sparkling wine. Fruity, refreshing but simple.
*Chandon Blanc de Noirs, Napa Valley ($16): Sharp and citrus-y, not at all Champagne-like. Palatable but not complex.
*1985 Bouvet "Saphir" Brut, Saumur, France ($15): Fresh, lively, a little sweeter than most brut sparkling wines, but a very charming wine. It has as much toastiness as many Champagnes and the quality ranks with some good non-vintage bruts.
*Charles de Fere Tradition Brut Chardonnay, France ($12). A very convincing Champagne substitute, not quite the toastiness and yeastiness of the best, but quite refined.
*Domaine Ste. Michelle Champagne Brut, Columbia Valley, Washington State ($7.49). An excellent value, equal to many California sparkling wines at twice the price. Clean and crisp, with hints of Champagne character.
*1987 Henninger Jagersekt Extra Trocken Riesling, Germany, Terry Thiese Selection ($11): An excellent example of how crisp and refreshing a well-made, dry sekt can be. Tight and structured, with good mineral undertones.
*Tosti Champenois, Italy ($5). Not the greatest sparkling wine, but crisp, clean, lightly toasty and without any "off" flavors. An almost unbelievable value.
*1988 Codorniu "Anna de Codorniu" Brut, Spain ($7.29).
*Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut, Spain ($7.59)
*1987 Codorniu Brut Classico, Spain ($6).
*Brut d'Argent Blanc de Blancs, Chardonnay, Cotes du Jura, France ($11).
*Vendome Extra Brut, Argentina ($11).
*Codorniu Blanc de Blancs, Spain ($8).
*Lasseter Australian Sparkling Wine ($9.55).
Note: Two other Australian wines showed flaws that were likely the result of individual bottle defects.