Champagne inspiration
Champagne inspiration (istockphoto)

Whether true or just a bit of wishful folklore, champagne was reportedly first cooked up by the French Benedictine monk Pierre Perignon (c. 1638-1715). When Dom Perignon first tasted his concoction, he is reported to have said, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!"

These many years later, nothing says Happy New Year quite like sparkling wine. But you don't have to serve the vintage that bears Dom Perignon's name to have an experience worthy of seeing stars.

It can be a daunting prospect to determine what really is great to serve at a party or give as a gift. So, b asked three well-regarded wine aficionados to give their take on the best that is out there on the market, with prices for all budgets. Our expert panel is composed of Laurie Forster of Easton, the self-styled "Wine Coach" and author of "The Sipping Point"; Nelson Carey, owner of the Belvedere Square wine bar Grand Cru, who also teaches wine-appreciation courses at Roland Park Country School; and Rita Blackwell, president and co-founder of Timonium-based Wine Express, which creates intimate in-home wine tastings and other events.

Under $15

Laurie Forster: Mont-Marcal Brut Reserva (Spain). Cava and champagne have many things in common — they are both a blend of three grape varieties, and both use the traditional Methode Champenoise to create their bubbles. Costing only a fraction of what most French champagnes sell for, this sparkler is very reasonably priced. $13.

Rita Blackwell: Voga Sparkling Pinot Grigio (Italy). A cool sparkler for a reasonable price. This is a fun, festive and hip sparkling wine for anyone at your holiday party. $14.99.

Under $25

Forster: Nicolas Feuillatte Blue Label Brut NV (France). Once a legend on the New York party scene, Nicholas Feuilatte inherited a vineyard and created sparklers for friends like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The emphasis on red grapes in the blend creates a champagne with flavors of apple and pear. Great with fresh shucked oysters. $22.99.

Nelson Carey: Eudald Cava (Spain). Very dry and elegant with the balance and complexity of wines more than twice the price. This wine is the shining star of Cava, Spain's generous contribution to the world of sparkling wine. $18.

Blackwell: Ceci Tre di Terre Extra Dry (Italy). I soooooo love this wine. It is truly one of my all time go-to sparklers. The Malvasia grape gives floral notes to the wine and flavors of orange zest; the pinot nero grape and sauvignon blanc gives structure and balance. Fantastic when paired with light cheeses, seafood and spicy dishes. $21.99.

Under $50

Forster: Schramberg Blanc de Blancs 2006 (Napa). This is credited with being the first American winery to make a chardonnay-based sparkling wine [Blanc de blancs denotes the use of only chardonnay grapes] and also the first American sparkler to be served at an official White House event. Elegant and dry, it is a perfect paring for all things seafood. $43.

Carey: Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2008 (Napa). This blanc de blancs is made from 100 percent chardonnay. It is bone dry, lemony and the best wine I can think of for oysters on the half. From one of Napa's pioneering wineries that makes what I believe to be one of America's finest sparkling wines. $43.

Blackwell: Maxime Godet (France). Premier Cru Champagne NV. This wine has a special place not only on my palate but in my heart. This is a voluptuous champagne, with freshly toasted aromas of yeast and hazelnut. A very classy champagne to sip at your festive holiday celebrations. $49.

Under $75

Forster: Bollinger Brut Champagne (France). One sip of this and you will know why Lilly Bollinger said, "I only drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory." A complex, but superb champagne. $69.

Carey: Pierre Peters Cuvee de Reserve Grand Cru (France). Another blanc de blancs, all chardonnay, but lighter and more ethereal than the Schramsberg with a beautiful biscuit dough aroma. One of the greatest trends in wine these days is the appreciation for "grower" champagnes, e.g., champagnes from the grapes grown on the property of the estate and not sourced from anywhere else, which gives the winery complete control when it comes to quality. $63.

Blackwell: Laurent Perrier NV Brut Rose Champagne (France). This is a luscious rose that is said to be the best in the world. I love it for its deep pink salmon color and the very tiny bubbles that dance so slightly across your tongue, providing just the right amount of tickle. This champagne is bright and fresh yet full-bodied with elegant notes of raspberries, strawberries and black cherries. $68.99.

Under $100

Forster: Billecart Salmon Rose NV (France). Forget whatever you think you know about pink champagne. This elegant rose, made mostly from Grand Cru vineyards, is salmon-colored with flavors of strawberry and citrus, as well as floral hints. Sipping this pink sparkler with chocolate-covered strawberries is guaranteed to make for a memorable experience. $89.99.

Blackwell. Bollinger Champagne La Grande Annee 2000 (France). This is a champagne that James Bond drinks in his movies. It is an exquisite champagne that makes one feel very special. It is complex, with wonderful flavors that offer floral notes, orange citrus, a touch of vanilla and warm roasted hazelnut with just the slightest touch of spice. If you are willing to splurge, this would be the "it" champagne. $96.