Enjoy the season's festivities with good company and sparkling wines.
Credit: Randy Mayor

For holidays and other special occasions, one wine stands out as the most festive and celebratory of them all: Champagne. This crisp, fizzy beverage is the stuff that memories are made of. But you don't have to spend the family fortune to get a great bottle of bubbly. In fact, you don't even have to splurge on Champagne―instead, try sparkling wines made in California.

What's the difference? Champagne is made only in the Champagne region of France, about 90 miles northeast of Paris. Here, the cold climate and chalky soil gives the wine a unique character. If it's from California or elsewhere, it's simply called sparkling wine.

Is one better than the other? Not anymore. Fifteen years ago, I would have said that true Champagne reigned supreme. But today, sparkling wines made outside of France―and especially in California―have gotten incredibly good. So much so that when I conduct tastings for my students (all adult professionals) and the identities of the wines are hidden, virtually no one can correctly identify which are the Champagnes and which are the California sparklers.

Which is not to say they're all created equal. These wines are divided into two broad categories: those made using the Champagne method (methode champenoise in French; look for the phrase on the label) and those that get their bubbles from the same carbonation process used to make soft drinks. Avoid the second group; though these wines are attractively priced, they taste terrible. Those made by the Champagne method are vastly superior and well worth their price tags. They take years to make, and their fizz occurs naturally inside each bottle. This lengthy process results in tiny, frothy bubbles, as opposed to the large, coarse ones found in the cheap stuff.

Expect great sparklers to be creamy yet boast a snappy acidity at the same time. Flavors to look for include hints of baked apple or pear, cream, toasted nuts, and just-baked bread. The texture should be nothing short of fabulous―those elegant little bubbles should tingle, refresh, and delight as they slide over the palate. And above all, a good sparkler should result in a joyful state of mind―just what you want this time of year.

Here are five great sparklers to try:

Korbel Brut Nonvintage (California), Simple, light, and frothy, and the price is certainly right.

Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage (Carneros, California), Sleek and stylish, with a hint of lemon-cream-pie flavor.

Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs Brut Vintage (Napa Valley, California), Schramsberg, a top California sparkling-wine producer, makes bubblies that are complex, rich, and dramatic.

Laurent-Perrier Brut Nonvintage (Champagne, France), Nice yeastiness and just a hint of exotic ginger make this a fascinating Champagne.

Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs, Brut Vintage (Champagne, France), This great sparkler is created using Chardonnay grapes and has decadent tarte Tatin and creme brulee flavors.