Like a string of Christmas lights, our top December wine recommendations are all sparkling

Casual wine drinkers, aficionados, and beginners alike: Each month we expose you to new things, educating and diversifying your palate with a lineup of our monthly wine picks. I argued with myself before writing this, thinking that we are perhaps remiss in not suggesting a hearty Zinfandel (great for winter) or a Virginia Chambourcin (tastes like Christmas, particularly when mulled), but yet knowing that the occasion thirsts for an all-sparkling lineup to celebrate the holidays. A sparkling wine tasting last night sealed the deal. If you find yourself hard up for some red wine options, though, do check out last month's wine list, where we recommended three outstanding bottles to serve with your Thanksgiving, err, December holiday dinner.

Further reading: Our November wine list features three outstanding bottles to serve with your Thanksgiving dinner

But first, a word on sparkling wine. Two misconceptions often cloud the sparkling sensibilities of too many casual wine drinkers. Both are, happily, falling away from the zeitgeist as the wine drinking public develops increasingly more diverse tastes. First is that Champagne and sparkling wine are interchangeable, or that anything less than Champagne just won't do. The name Champagne refers very specifically to sparkling wine made in the Traditional Method in the French region of Champagne. It's true, they make great sparkling wine there, and much sparkling production throughout the world imitates their method, but do embrace the wonderful bottles produced in powerhouses like Spain (Cava) and Italy (Prosecco), as well as relative unknowns like the Czech Republic. Second, that sparkling wine is often thought the sole province of celebratory occasions is utter nonsense. We'd not be featuring an all-sparkling tasting lineup in December if this notion weren't based in some degree of popular truth, but we routinely pop a bottle of sparkling every month of the year to celebrate grand moments and casual meals. Embrace it!

Further reading: A Lover's Guide to Champagne

2015 Dobrá vinice Crème de Parc National (Moravia, Czech Republic)

Why we chose it: Set aside some disagreement of the origin of this sparkling wine; the sommelier asserted it to be a blend of Welschriesling, Rhine Riesling, and Muller Thurgau, though sources on the Internet claim otherwise. Its natural and unfiltered, thus making it stylistically very different for drinkers used to sparkling wine made in the Traditional Method for which (say) Champagne is known. That lack of filtration produces a beautiful, cloudy, shimmering gold color in the glass, from whose center a lone seam of bubbles emanated. The nose is reminiscent of light cider, reminding us of what high quality producers like Pennsylvania's (USA) Big Hill Cider Works are doing now. It effervesces lightly in the mouth, again, a far cry from traditional method sparklers. Largely apple and subtle pear notes pair beautifully with the mouthfeel and entire visual experience to produce a glass that we'd drink again and again.

Further reading: Big Hill Ciderworks mixes apples with winemaker passion in an extraordinary bottle lineup

What to look for: I recently enjoyed this bottle with a good friend at the absolutely stunning Bokovka wine bar in Prague. Absolutely. Stunning. Yet -- and I'll not take you too far down this rabbit hole -- so intimate and casual. You'll note that their website bills the place as "A decrepit courtyard offering great wines." Nonetheless, we have serious doubts about one's ability to get hands on a bottle of this in most parts of the world, but we offer it up as proof of two facts: (1) Great sparkling wine is made in wine regions of which you may not be familiar, and (2) The Traditional Method doesn't have a monopoly on great sparkling wine. Work with your local wine merchant to explore the doors that these two revelations will open for you.

NV Cooperativa Vinícola Sarrall Cava Portell Brut (Cataluña, Spain)

Why we chose it: Lovers of both Spain and sparkling wine that we are, this was our choice for the first bottle shared with family on Thanksgiving last month. Sparkling wine, incidentally, makes an excellent opening pour. Quite a beautiful Cava in the $10-$15 price range. It's particularly effervescent in the glass, with notes of brioche, slate, and bright, lively green apple in the nose. It's smooth on the palate, but tart in the back, and warming in the mouth - like freshly baked bread.

What to look for: See that NV reference in the name of this bottle? It means non-vintage, meaning that -- for a variety of reasons that probably warrant separate discussion -- the winemaker has chosen not to assign a year vintage to this particular bottle. Don't let that scare you away, though, for in a micro sense this particular bottle was incredible, and in a macro sense this practice is quite common in the world of sparkling wine. We see Cava -- the traditional Spanish take on sparkling -- as an object of growing acceptance in the American market these last several years. Like many other wine styles, there is certainly some lackluster stuff in the market, but there are great buys available if you're willing to spend $15 and up.

2013 Leclerc Briant Champagne Brut "La Croisette" (Champagne, France)

Why we chose it: One of our favorites shared with us by our friends at The Vineyard in McLean, Virginia last night, the La Croisette is our actual honest-to-God Champagne offering on our list this month, made in from 100% Chardonnay grown on a small 1.5 acre vineyard in Épernay, France. The incredibly expressive nose -- I'll call it "transportive", for it really moves your senses to a different moment and place -- throws notes of fresh apple pie and cinnamon which, though quite refined, evokes that gooey goodness that anyone whose celebrated an American Thanksgiving will find all too familiar. Meghan and Kathleen debated the presence of "a candy from our youth" before arriving on sweet tarts as the likely comparison. The fresh -- oh my this feels fresh -- apple pie continues robustly through the palate. Really phenomenal!

What to look for: We very rarely highlight bottles in the $150 to $200 range, but we're doing so here to share the breadth of options available when choosing a sparkling wine. That said, we'd not take this purchase lightly. Our September list, for example, featured the also-delightful Philipe Gimonnet-Gonet Champagne that rings in around $50. Bottom line: when tastes and occasion call for great Champagne, you'll be able to find something good from at least $50, and often a bit less. Avoid the non-vintage Veuve-Clicquot of the world not because there is something wrong with them, but because you'll find so much to discover in the smaller Champagne houses if you actually put a moment into seeking them out.

Further reading: Transition to autumn wine drinking with our Top Five wine tasting lineup for September