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Handle The Proof: Champagne

You can find decent sparkling wines pretty much anywhere. And it's no real drain on the bank account to try out, say, a bottle of New Mexico's Gruet.

But the splurge bottles--the vintage Champagnes--can run close to $500. No problem if you're a basketball star treating the live-in who's name you can never remember to a celebration; for the rest of us, however, such once-in-a-lifetime purchases can be a bit like...geez, can't think of anything comparable. You know whatever you buy is supposed to be good, but it's impossible to know what to expect.

Really, the great vintage Champagnes are almost too subtle for beginners. Armand de Brignac's Brut Gold, for example, releases mineral aromas with a light scent of dried flowers. Its taste also contains mineral traces. But the rush of fruit and toasted bread strikes more noticeably--and lingers for a considerable time. The Oenotheque '93 from Dom Perignon offers a bouquet resembling dried flowers--clover in particular--and minerals, too, along with an constant background like field of cut hay. On the palate there's more of a cider-like experience backed by hints of citrus, vanilla and wet rocks.

If you know the taste of wet rocks, that is.

Both are extraordinarily light and natural. There's none of the heavy sweetness associated with cheap sparklers (and none of the potential headache). The texture comes across as almost silky. And both will cost you several hundred bucks.

These aren't dazzling wines in the sense of 'wow, I taste a blast of fruit and...' But if you pay attention, you catch in each breath and sip what nature will do to fruit as it grows and then ferments, what yeast leaves behind once it gobbles up all the sugars, how that year's weather affected the crop. Dom Perignon's 2000, for instance, lived through almost ideal weather patterns. The resulting wine is clean and neatly balanced, with a mineral taste emerging behind the first wash of fruit and a finish like white bread touched briefly to flame. In 1993, the growing season experienced several breaks from the norm--hence the crisp, cidery fruit and wet farmyard notes.

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For $200 or $400 a bottle, you get wines to contemplate, as well as enjoy. Expect boldness and you will be disappointed. The flavors don't come to you. Instead, they force you to notice, to pick them out. When you do, a sense of timelessness hits you.

But that's it. The brilliance of wine crafted by a couple of people working a small plot of vineyard with great care--sometimes, as with the Armand de Brignac, land dedicated to grapes since the 1700s--is in that moment. It lasts as long as the bottle, and then the sensation departs.

If you can spare a nice wad of cash for that, do so. For these wines are perfect. If not, stick with Gruet (or something similar). You'll be just as happy.

The margin between great and decent, in this case, is both massive and quite small indeed.

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