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Libations: Tops for Champagne

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Pops for Champagne co-owner Tom Verhey plans to pop open a bottle of Taittinger Comtes 1996 this New Year's Eve. He and his wife, Linda, have something to celebrate: after 24 years on Sheffield they've moved their jazz club and champagne bar to a 6,000-square-foot space in the renovated Tree Studios. There's also an adjoining retail store, Pops Shop, which Verhey claims is the first in the country devoted exclusively to champagne and sparkling wine.

At the sleekly modern new spot, designed by architecture firm Harley Ellis Devereaux, patrons can gather at the octagonal onyx bar, perch at high tables, or relax on lounge chairs while sipping any of 120 sparklers (at $20 to $650 per bottle) and nibbling on small plates and desserts. There are currently ten still wines and seven sparklers available by the glass.

Pops Shop stocks more than 100 labels, with prices ranging from $16 for an Alianca Reserva to $225 for Louis Roederer Cristal. Everything you need to enjoy the bubbly is on hand, too: flutes, ice buckets, and serviceware. Friday-afternoon tastings are scheduled to begin in 2007.

I asked Tom Verhey and several other retailers to suggest sparklers in three price ranges: under $20, $20 to $50, and $50 to anything goes. If you're wondering about the price of Verhey's New Year's Eve Taittinger, it's $235--just a bit more than the $39 Deutz Cuvee William 1975 he uncorked on the first New Year's Eve at Pops for Champagne. Here are their recommendations:

Tom Verhey at Pops Shop, 605 N. State, 312-266-7676

aAvinyo Rosado ($18)

This rose cava has beautiful color, fresh fruit flavor, and a refreshing dryness. "You don't normally find exceptional roses at this price."

aJose Dhondt Blanc de Blancs ($34)

Elegant, fresh, crisp, and medium dry, this lighter-style champagne makes the perfect aperitif. "Blanc de blancs are the most popular style with our staff."

aJoseph Perrier Josephine 1995 ($80)

Rich, balanced, and well aged, this is one of the better tete de cuvees for the price--and from an exceptional year.

Charles Edward Stanfield, director of champagnes and sparkling wines at Sam's Wine & Spirits, 1720 N. Marcey, 312-664-4394

aLaetitia Brut Cuvee ($15.99)

From the Arroyo Grande Valley, this sparkling wine with a great balance of fruit and acidity, a little honey on the finish, and wonderful finesse "proves that California sparkling wines have come a long way."

aCharles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($43.99)

A little more than medium bodied with a very toasty nose and generous minerality, this "beautiful champagne is really well made and every bit as good as vintage picks in this price range."

aHenriot Cuvee des Enchanteleurs 1990 ($140)

With a little ginger and spice, this ethereal, complex choice from a great vintage represents the perfect marriage of aging and blending and continues to evolve in the glass. "Like anything wonderful, it's impossible to replicate but easy to reminisce about."

Mike Baker, manager at Wine Discount Center, 1826 N. Elston, 773-489-3454

aBisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene NV Brut ($13.79)

Lots of character, flavors of apples and pears, and a creamy texture make this midlevel prosecco a "fantastic wine for the money" and "perfect to serve at a party."

aHenriot Blanc de Blancs Pur Chardonnay ($37.99)

This bigger, richer-style blanc de blancs from Reims has toasty, honey, yeasty flavors, brightness, and great length. "Beautiful and complex."

aBillecart-Salmon 1998 Brut Blanc de Blancs ($117.99)

The structural elements--the way the acid, alcohol, and sugars are put together--elevate this tete de cuvee from good to truly great. "Buy one bottle to drink now and a second to cellar for ten years."

Howard Silverman, owner of Howard's Wine Cellar, 1244 W. Belmont, 773-248-3766

aLeopardi Brut Rose Reserva 2003 ($16.99)

It's rare to find a vintage cava, and this terrific value is dry with strawberry and cherry flavors and a clean, long finish. "You'd pay $40 or $50 for a comparable rose champagne from France."

aJean Lallement Brut NV ($37.99)

A blend of 80 percent red grapes and 20 percent white, this medium-bodied, yeasty champagne from a small grower is dry but fruity and mellow. "Customers love it, and it's the champagne I drink most often."

aHenri Billiot Cuvee Laetitia Tete de Cuvee ($73.99)

Wine dating back to 1985 is blended into this complex, full-bodied, relatively spicy champagne that's "for the connoisseur."

Angela Snow, manager at Que Syrah Fine Wines, 3726 N. Southport, 773-871-8888

aChateau Lisennes Cremant de Bordeaux ($16.95)

This delicate, dry "gem" has tiny bubbles, a very creamy finish, and beautiful flavors of honeydew melon and autumn orchard pear. "It's from Bordeaux, and you don't see many sparkling wines from that region. It also makes the best mimosas."

aChartogne Taillet Brut ($34.95)

Estate bottled by a winemaker with only 12 hectares, it's vibrant with orchard and citrus fruit and a toasty almond biscotti flavor.

aSalon Blanc de Blancs 1998 ($299.95)

This extra-special champagne, available in extremely limited quantities, has power and balance, finesse, body, minerality, and a smooth, creamy finish. "It reminds me of standing under a waterfall as the cascading water hits the rocks." --Anne Spiselman

For more on restaurants, see our blog the Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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