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A bottle of 2004 Cristal Brut in its cellophane wrapper, left, next to a non-vintage Louis Roederer Brut Premier.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The question

We enjoy a bottle of Cristal Brut on occasion but would like you to suggest substitutes (or as close as possible) at a lesser price. We look forward to your recommendations.

The answer

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Yikes. That's a tall order. Cristal is the iconic $300 Champagne knocked back by hip-hop moguls and Hollywood royalty (often straight from the bottle in Cadillac Escalades and hot tubs).

The full name is Louis Roederer Cristal, and it does happen to be a gem. Packaged in a distinguished clear-glass bottle wrapped in ultraviolet-filtering cellophane, it is one of the most coveted big-brand Champagnes, along with Dom Perignon and Krug.

The wine was born in 1876. Tsar Alexander II of Russia was a Roederer fan and had asked the house to come up with a bottle that could be distinguished from the "common" dark-glass Champagne making the rounds. (According to alternative variations of the story, he wanted to make sure it wasn't laced with poison.)

Ostentatious though the packaging may be (call me cynical, but I suspect it's the key reason free-spending showbiz types have gravitated to it), the liquid inside is awesome. The thing is, it's a vintage Champagne, which means it's bottled only in the best years. Most other Champagnes are blended from juice produced over several years and are crafted to taste pretty much the same year after year. Vintage Champagnes don't conform to a "house" style in the same way.

What does Cristal taste like? I'd say it varies significantly from vintage to vintage, and that's part of any vintage Champagne's attraction.

Peruse the critical reviews and you'll find a wide swath of adjectives, from "stony" and "chalky" to "fruity" and "yeasty." I'm not the world expert on the wine by any means, and I no doubt have consumed less "Cris" than Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent and Oprah Winfrey. But I'll say two things with confidence: It tends to have a seductively round mid-palate, usually suggesting brioche pastry, which I love; and it's designed to age gracefully, something I suspect makes little or no difference to most showbiz personalities who immediately stash it in their Sub-Zero fridges.

Is there such a thing as a "baby" Cristal? Not really. But let me offer two feeble answers. First of all, consider Louis Roederer Brut Premier. That's the excellent, entry-level, non-vintage Champagne from the same house. It costs about $70 a bottle. Not cheap, but compared with Cristal it may sound like a steal. Roederer also happens to make less expensive and very fine bubbly in California. Their top sparkling wine from that property, Roederer Estate l'Hermitage Brut, is superb, at about $55. Some people have suggested it comes close to Cristal in quality. One of the first vintages I tried, back in the mid-1990s, came pretty close. The lower-end Roederer Estate Brut costs about $29 and is splendid, too.

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E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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