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Understanding Champagne 

The vibe is elusive, elegant, but not chaotic. Tiny streams of pinpoint bubbles emanating from the rounded bottom of a flute fall in line, free flowing to the top. While some may eat mac and cheese, or pints of ice cream, I find solace in Champagne. Those tiny bubbles represent a cathartic release when I'm sad. But I equally find happiness in the bubbly, too. Why not ring in the New Year, a new marriage, a new baby with a sparkler?

But Champagne and other sparklers have so much more to offer than being sipped to wish someone a happy year, love, life, or busted over a bow.

Sparklers can be the right pairing for a variety of foods including currently popular dishes. Sushi is one of those unstoppable trends from the aughts that will carry over into the teens. The acidity of a dry Champagne not only complements sushi, particularly those with fin fish, but other Asian dishes as well, including those with a punched-up heat level. Champagne with a blistering Thai dish? Why not? Dry sparklers are palate cleansers.

Shellfish, notably lobster, have always been a good match with Champagne. Oysters, specifically Australian oysters, are sensational. And it's not just fin fish and shell fish that make marvelous sidekicks. Sparklers can cut right through grease. It's no mistake that at Barcelona's tapas bars, the preferred wine is the locally made bubbly.

Understanding Champagne and sparking wines is fairly elemental. The word Champagne can only be used for wines from the region of Champagne, France -- like Kobe beef must be from Kobe, Japan. Sparkling wines produced in Cataluña, the province where Barcelona and those tapas bars are located, are known as cavas. Wines from the U.S. and Australia are called sparkling wines. Other Europeans wines go by spumante (Italy), sekt (Germany) or crémant (France). One Italian sparkler popular in the U.S. is Prosecco, a slightly sweet wine.

Sparkling wines are traditionally made from three grape varietals: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The last two are red grapes. Some wines, known as "blanc de blanc," only have chardonnay juice. These wines tend to be lighter and crisper and are also increasing in popularity. "Blanc de noir" are wines made with the red grapes.

A vintage wine means it is from a specific year. For Champagne, this means that 85 percent of the grapes used are harvested in a single year. Others are labeled non-vintage, or NV, which means the juice is blended for taste consistency. Rosé sparklers (aka pink champagne) are made by adding some red wine or allowing the dark grape skins to be in contact with the juice.

Champagnes can be sweet or dry since sugar is added directly to the bottle during the second fermentation and bottles are labeled accordingly: doux (the sweetest), demi-sec, se, brut, extra brut, and brut zero or natural -- the driest.

If you are looking at Champagnes -- and 2009 is clearly the year to do this since some retailers have slashed prices on these wines -- here are a few rules for reading the label. The best Champagnes are "cuvees" or first press. This is when the grapes have the most sugar and acidity. Where the grapes are grown is also indicated on the label. All the villages of the appellation are rated into grand (the best) cru (growth place) or premier (second best) cru.

Outside of Champagne, houses or wineries will print on the label how the wine is made. Look for Méthode Traditionnelle. These sparklers are made like the wines in Champagne and will have those smaller bubbles. They cost more, but you may also avoid a headache. Another method, charmant, is how cheap sparklers are made. Here the second fermentation occurs in a tank; some companies even pump carbon dioxide into the tanks -- like soda. These are not recommended even for punch.

Once you delve into the world of sparklers, you can determine which flavor profile you like. Prices of sparklers are lower than last year, particularly those in the middle range. Two of my favorites are Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label and the Roederer Estate Sparkling Wine NV.

Once you find the wine you like, look for year-round food pairings. Champagne is a good match for fried chicken, white pizza, even late-night eggs. The price of one glass of bubbly is reasonable, too, since each bottle yields six glasses. Roederer sells for about $20. This is about $3.50 a glass -- less than a sushi roll or a box of fried chicken. Instead of waiting for a celebration, opening a bottle of sparkling wine can make any occasion celebratory.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter):

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