Champagne and its less canonized—but just as delicious—sister sparkling wine are perennially sexy.

Their appeal is massive.

"It's a very sensual beverage," Susan Egan, owner of Susan's Fine Wine & Spirits (1005 St. Francis Drive, in Crossroads Center, 505-984-1582), says. "It's involved: pretty to look at, smells good, tastes good, automatically puts you in a good mood."

And Santa Fe is in no short supply of the bubbly, be it from local liquor stores and restaurants, or from high-altitude vineyards right here in New Mexico.

The term Champagne applies strictly to sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France, located 90 miles east of Paris, where wine grapes have been cultivated for 2,000 years. But the term has been used—to the dismay of everyone who knows where Champagne is—for sparkling wines found elsewhere. Korbel's Russian River Valley Champagne, anyone?

However, when looking for a good sparkling wine, the method by which it's made can be more important than its geographic origin.

Sparkling wines that follow the méthode Champenoise are a good place to start.

The process involves a secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle, using a mixture of yeast and sugar to create carbonation.

Less expensive sparkling wines like Andre ($4.99!) are made with the Charmat process, in which the second fermentation happens in bulk tanks. Egan cautions against the cheap stuff and lobbies in favor of the more refined method—"you'll feel so much better the next day," she says—just as she'd recommend 100 percent agave tequila rather than tequilas that use other sugars for fermentation.

Champagnes and typical sparkling wines are made from varying combinations of three grapes—pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay—to make any number of styles that range from blanc de blanc (100 percent chardonnay) to blanc de noir (just the black grapes, pinot meunier and pinot noir).

Styles are a matter of preference.

"You have different flavors from chardonnay and pinot noir," Scott Murray, sales representative for New Mexico's Gruet, which was founded by a family that still produces Champagne in Champagne (Paul Laurent), says.

"When the pinot noir grape is involved, there's more of a fruity taste, more strawberry and cherry notes. Chardonnay has more lemon notes, a little more austere."

Gruet does not use the pinot meunier grape—"We don't think it offers the complexity that chardonnay and pinot noir do on their own," Murray says—but to the grape's credit, it's hardy and can add brightness and fruitiness to sparkling wine blends.

While Egan and David Sellers, the chef and owner of Amavi (221 Shelby St., 505-988-2355), both enjoy good Champagne, they also enjoy good sparkling wines ("good" being the operative word).

Sellers likes vintage Old World wines best, but says some of the large Champagne houses aren't necessarily worth their names anymore.

"Strictly speaking, Champagne producers have almost costed themselves out of the market, getting more and more expensive, especially the big names," Sellers says.

As a result, he recommends grower-producer Champagne houses, which both grow the grapes and make the wine. These are distinct from larger Champagne houses, which often only produce the beverage, purchasing the grapes from growers throughout the region.

There's been an upswing in grower-producers of comparable cost and even superior quality to the large Champagne houses. Sellers believes these sparkling wines and Champagnes have more personality and indications of their terroir—the character of the place and soil in which the grapes are grown.

Egan concurs, noting that grower-producer wines "show a lot of character [and are] very different from one another."

To discern a grower-producer from merely a producer, check the bottom of the Champagne's label for two letters followed by a series of numbers: RM, récoltant manipulant, means grower-made; NM, négociant manipulant" means the producer bought the grapes.

For sparkling wines in the United States, there often is no way to tell whether the producer also grew the grapes, so you may have to ask. Murray tells SFR Gruet's grapes come from New Mexico, both from Gruet's own fields in Engle and other vineyards in the state.

Murray believes Gruet's product is just as good as good Champagne.

He says to look for tinier bubbles as a sign of quality: "Big fat bubbles are not what you're looking for. [Those sparkling wines are] not well-made and are not of quality," Murray says.

Gruet, which produces with the méthode Champenoise, sold more than 100,000 cases of sparkling wine last year, nationally to New Mexico, New York, California and Texas, as well as internationally to Japan and even France. It's also received great praise from venues that include The Wall Street Journal, Wine Advocate, Good Morning America and Martha Stewart, not to mention Egan and Sellers.

"I think they're the best sparkling producers in the US, for sure," Sellers says.

For Valentine's Day, Murray recommends Gruet's non-vintage rosé ("nice little strawberry notes, beautiful pink color, fruity but it's also dry," $12-$14), and the vintage 2003 grand rosé ("nose and aromas of pinot noir with a creamy soft texture and flavors of cherry and green apple," $32-$36).

"The big difference is not only that our quality stands up with the competition, but we're at a much better value," Murray says.

Beyond preference, consider the situation.

"If you're looking at Champagne for Valentine's Day, consider what it's drunk with. If it's chocolate, you don't want a bone-dry Champagne," Egan says. She recommends one with more residual sugar.

Champagnes range from sweet demi sec, to extra dry to brut, which is drier than extra dry (Egan says to think "brut-ally dry").

And of course, there's always the matter of with whom you drink it.

Wine 101
Champagne/sparkling wine lesson
5:45 pm Tuesday, March 16

221 Shelby St.