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Tasters pick champagnes to please everyone's palette

By Fred Tasker

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Here's a nice thought: Champagne, the beverage of celebration that brings so many smiles around the New Year, is created by a complex process that begins in the vineyard and ends, very appropriately, with a smile.

The face displaying that smile belongs to Regis Camus, winemaker for Champagne Charles Heidsieck and Champagne Piper-Heidsieck in the chilly Champagne region 100 miles northeast of Paris.

After all the vines are harvested, all the grapes fermented and aged, the final process is the blending of dozens, even hundreds of lots into a single, final champagne. It's done at Camus' chateau by a tasting process with him and a team of six assistants.

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When a blend teeters at the edge of acceptance, Camus says he falls silent.

"If I make the first call, everyone will follow me. So I just look for a smile on their faces. Collegiality is the secret to fine champagne," Camus says. "And conviviality."

A charming conceit, if nothing else. And something nice to think about when you're sipping bubbly this season. To that end, here are some of the best I've tasted this year for under $100.

France

Highly recommended

Multivintage Laurent-Perrier "La Cuvee" Grand Siecle, Tours-sur-Marne: nuts, golden apples, white peaches, rich and maturing; $80.

Nonvintage Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Reims: yeast and almonds, light and frothy lemon meringue; $40.

Nonvintage Besserat de Bellefon Brut "Cuvee des Moines," Epernay: powerful, sweet lemon drop flavors; full body; $39.

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Nonvintage Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut, Reims: toasty, nutty, rich, bone-dry kiwi flavors; $40.

Nonvintage Piper-Heidsieck Rose Sauvage, Reims: rich, tart cranberry and pink grapefruit flavors, spicy finish; $45.

California

Highly recommended:

1999 Chandon "Etoile" Brut Sur Lies Sparkling Wine, Napa and Sonoma: buttered toast aromas, sweet lemons and oranges and spice, creamy; $37.

2002 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, Napa: aromas and flavors of tropical fruit and spice, lively bubbles; $25.

Recommended:

Nonvintage Chandon Brut Classic Sparkling Wine: toasty aromas, black cherry and vanilla flavors, soft bubbles; $18.

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Nonvintage Mumm Napa Brut Prestige: rich, crisp and tart, light body; $17.

Nonvintage Piper Sonoma Blanc de Noir: yeasty and crisp, with red fruit flavors; $17.

Nonvintage Gloria Ferrer Brut Sonoma: green apple flavors, tart and crisp; $18.

Nonvintage Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee: toasty, yeasty, full-bodied; $27.

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