THE Times tasting panel met twice in recent weeks to find the best Champagnes to recommend across the price spectrum -- from $21 to $115 -- as well as the standout sparkling wines from around the world for less than $20. (There are no Champagnes available to recommend at that price point.) Joining me on the panel were Food editor Leslie Brenner, assistant Food editor Betty Hallock, columnist Russ Parsons, restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, staff writer Charles Perry and deputy features editor Michalene Busico. The first tasting included wines priced up to $40; the second included wines priced from $41 to $115.
In all categories, there was broad consensus among the panel, with clear favorites emerging in each price category. Still, there were several strong also-rans, including nonvintage Pol Roger Extra Cuvee de Reserve Brut (available in better wine shops for about $37) and a 1998 Comte Audoin de Dampierre Family Reserve Grand Cru Brut (available at the Wine Exchange in Orange for $80). Following is a list of our favorites in each category with the best price we found in the Los Angeles area.
Sparkling wines: $20 and less
Caves de Bailly Brut de Charvis, N.V. This Cremant de Bourgogne is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 20% Aligote and 20% Chardonnay. Well-balanced and very drinkable, with tiny bubbles and aromas of cherry, rose and a little toast. Best price found at Wine Expo in Santa Monica, (310) 828-4428, $11.
Bele Casel Prosecco, N.V. A fun and frothy wine with rose geranium and orange blossom aromas, lemon and apple flavors and a flowery finish. Best price found at Woodland Hills Wine Co., (818) 222-1111, $13.
Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut. A delicate, fruity California methode champenoise sparkler with ripe apple and pear flavors. Best price found at Cost Plus stores, $17.
Champagnes: $21 to $30
Duval-Leroy Brut, N.V. An elegant and clean Pinot Noir-dominated blend from the Cote des Blancs region, with light lemony aromas and a slight sweetness to the toasty finish. Best price found at Mel & Rose Wine & Spirits in West Hollywood, (323) 655-5557, $25.
Drappier Carte d'Or Brut, N.V. This blend of 80% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier wines has appealing floral and fruit aromas with earthy flavors and a creamy texture. Best price found at Wine Exchange in Orange, (714) 974-1454, $30.
Champagnes: $31 to $40
Jacques Picard Brut, N.V. From a small grower-producer in the Montagne de Reims district, this open, accessible wine delivers a richness you'd expect with a vintage Champagne that has a few years of bottle age, with a whiff of fresh biscuits and ripe pear and green apple flavors. Best price found at Wine Expo, $35.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, N.V. A well-balanced Champagne from a grande marque house in Mareuil-sur-Ay. With fruity aromas, the wine has an appealing earthiness and a creamy texture. Best price found at Wine Exchange, $36.
Camille Saves, Premier Cru, Brut, N.V. A delicate Pinot Noir-dominated blend from Bouzy, with earthy, mushroomy aromas, a bit of depth and complexity and a long finish. Best price found at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463, and Wine House in West Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731, $40.
Champagnes: $41 to $50
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Blanc de Blancs, Premier Cru, N.V. This small grower-producer in the Cote des Blancs region relies on 40- to 80-year-old Chardonnay vines to make an elegant wine with quiet aromas, delicate bubbles and a silky texture. Best price found at Wine Expo, $42.
H. Billiot Fils, Grand Cru, Brut Reserve, N.V. An elegant, well-balanced wine with fine, light bubbles from a small grower-producer in Ambonnay, a well-known village in the Montagne de Reims district. A hint of roasted chestnuts on the nose, mango flavors and a long finish. Best price found at the Wine Country in Signal Hill, (562) 597-8303, $47.
Champagnes: $51 to $70
Domaine Bruno Gobillard Vieilles Vignes Brut, N.V. This wine from a small estate in the Vallee de la Marne district was the standout of the tasting. It's a delicious, complex and well-balanced wine with warm, inviting yeasty and earthy aromas and a lovely long finish. Best price found at Wine Exchange, $54.
2002 Jose Dhondt Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes Blanc de Blancs Brut. This small grower-producer's tete de cuvee has appealing green apple aromas, good acid, some complexity, with a touch of bitterness. Best price found at Wine Exchange, $54.
1995 Pommery, Grand Cru, Brut. From a better-than-expected vintage, this is a big, blowsy, rich Champagne with toasty butterscotch aromas and a long finish -- perfect for the holiday. Best price found at Woodland Hills Wine Co., $60.
Champagnes: $71 to $115
1995 Ployez-Jacquemart, L. d'Harbonville, Brut. This Chardonnay-dominated prestige cuvee from a small grower-producer in the Montagne de Reims district is a robust, rich wine with a hint of funkiness and ripping acids. Should be great with food. Best price found at Wine House, $90.
1998 Moet & Chandon, Cuvee Dom Perignon, Brut. Moet's renowned tete de cuvee delivers on its reputation. It's delicate and delicious, with inviting, warm yeasty aromas, a silky texture and a pretty finish. Best price found at Cost Plus, Beverages & More, and Costco stores, $115.
-- Corie Brown