New Year's Eve without the bubbly is like a coronation without the crown.

WomanInRedPouringChampagne

"It's a very inexpensive luxury, which is why it's so romantic," says Gary Vaynerchuk, director of operations of the Wine Library in Springfield, New Jersey, and host of the popular video blog Wine Library TV (tv.winelibrary.com).

"Many more people can afford to buy a great $40 - $60 bottle of Champagne than can take a private jet to Las Vegas," he says, noting that Champagne, like spa treatments, is an indulgence that more Americans are enjoying, these days.

It's Easy: "Champagne" is only from Champagne

The trouble is, if you don't know your sparkling wine from your Tête de Cuvée, Champagne shopping can be an intimidating experience.

Champagne may be among the most misunderstood alcoholic beverage categories in America, says Vaynerchuk. Yet there's no need to attain a sommelier's expertise to pick out the perfect bottle for your celebration. Just a few basics and some insider recommendations can help you navigate the shelves of your favorite liquor store.

Champagne or sparkling wine? A bottle can only be called Champagne if it comes from the roughly 70,000 acres of the Champagne region of France. Anything else falls under the generic designation of sparkling wine.

Champagne is made from only three types of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Champagne-making uses a distinctive production method which involves a two-step fermentation process. The first step ferments the juice and creates the wine. The next produces the tiny bubbles.

Champagne Bottle

Just as delicious

Are other sparkling wines as good as Champagne? "Absolutely," says Vaynerchuk, emphatically. "Champagne has amazing terroir, meaning the soil and the location from which the grapes come. So the quality is extraordinary.

"However, there are some world-class cavas from Spain, sparkling wines from America and Italy, and sparkling Shirazes from Australia," he contends. In terms of quality, he says, "Champagne probably has a competitive edge because of its terroir, but clearly the rest of the world has caught up in last five to 10 years."

Great Value Sparkling Wines

wine.comIn the value-priced category of sparkling wines, Vaynerchuk is an enthusiastic champion of what he calls "the interesting and complex" Spanish cava. "It blows my mind that these wines are still priced at between $8 and $15 a bottle," he says.

"It comes down to marketing. No one knows what cava is, so producers can't demand a lot of money. If it said 'Champagne' on the label, cavas would sell for $40 a bottle." Good picks, he says, are Castell Riog and the oddly named 1 + 1 = 3.