New Year’s celebrations will be taking place on Saturday night, which means one thing: corks will be popping throughout the Bay Area and plenty of bubbly will be flowing.

But the question becomes what champagne to choose? Scott Beckerley, the Champagne/Old & Rare Wines Assistant Manager at K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco tries to help answer those very important questions.

Scott, what are some of the qualities and characteristics buyers should look for when it comes to champagne?

Buyers should look for either RM (Recoltant-Manipulant) or NM (Negociant-Manipulant) on the labels. Sometimes, these marks are hard to find and are generally at the bottom of the label in very small letters. The former refers to growers and producers who grow their own grapes on their own estates. The latter refers to generally larger houses that purchase some (or most) of their fruit rather than growing it. I prefer the former as these are usually smaller houses that have tighter control over the quality of their fruit. They also produce much smaller quantities.

What are some good less expensive bottles that are still high quality?

There are good bottles of both champagne and other sparkling wines. In terms of champagne, Piper-Hiedsieck has some nice selections in the $25 range. If you bump it up into the $35 range, we have many direct-import champagnes such as Michel Arnould, Franck-Bonville (Blanc de Blancs only) and Ariston that would fit the bill. In terms of sparkling wine, there are many from France’s Loire region and Limoux that are priced under $20.

What if someone wants to splurge? What would you suggest?

My favorite splurge champagne is Krug. Non-vintage is great to drink now. It has nutty flavors and a fairly rich fruit mid-palate with a very clean, zippy finish. The vintage wines of Krug are also great but need time. I opened a 1998 vintage Krug at work two weeks ago and though it was delicious and a customer favorite, it was very young. Not nearly as young as the 1996 though. That one is a 50 year wine! It is just a classic!

Is there any champagne that buyers should just stay away from?

Well, not exactly champagne but anything with a plastic “cork”. Mostly made in California. Too reminiscent of college!  Even within the actual Champagne region, the worst it gets for me is “so-so” and “meh”. One that I usually regard as “meh”, I used in a blind tasting in December and it tasted much better than I remembered it tasting! Maybe they changed their formula. I have driven by a number of Champagne houses in France that I heard were awful but, of course, never bothered to stop at them. I honestly cannot remember their names and in any case, I’m pretty sure that they were so small that they didn’t import outside of France. They seemed to be there mostly for tourists. Taste is such a personal thing that wines I might not like someone else will. So, it’s hard to say what not to buy. I do think that the plastic “cork” advice thing is pretty solid though.

Beckerley said they are usually a bit busier in terms of selling champagne in December. But most of the customers come in with a “festive” attitude befitting of the time of year.

K&L Wine Merchants is located at 638 4th Street in San Francisco. There is also a store in Redwood City at 3005 El Camino Real. Both stores are open seven days a week.