Yes, I'm just as tired of millennium hype as you are, and no, I wouldn't mention it unless an issue of consequence were at stake.

I've had one eye on the availability of Champagne for over a year now, having heard predictions that serious shortages would arise in the fourth quarter of this year. I've always been inclined to dismiss truly dire predictions, such as those suggesting that the Champagne pipeline might simply run dry as people stock up for millennium parties. These have the hollow ring of a self-serving attempt by the trade to incite fear and inflate prices, at least once you consider how much bubbly is produced and held in reserve.

For example, my notes from a visit to Moet & Chandon in June 1998 indicate that their cellars then held--get this--96 million bottles. Sure, Moet is the biggest of the big, but it's not easy to whip yourself into a panic once you've encountered a number like that.

Now that we're into the fourth quarter, I still haven't seen any credible evidence that the Champagne spigot might run dry. There is little question that supplies will be adequate for nonvintage bubbly, the $25 to $40 bottlings that have made Champagne famous and that represent 80 percent to 90 percent of production (depending on how many vintages are declared in a given period). However, not all Champagnes are created equal, and there is now genuine reason to believe that the very best bottlings may be unavailable by the end of the year.

These Champagnes, known as "Tete de Cuvee" or "Cuvee de Prestige" bottlings, are evaporating rapidly at the wholesale level. Several local wholesalers insist that they have already sold every bottle in this category that they will get from importers for the rest of the year. So, while I'm not fully persuaded that new shipments won't make a magical appearance late in the year, those who are bent on celebrating with something really spectacular would be wise to get moving.

This doesn't mean that you should claw your way past other shoppers to get to the Dom Perignon. Although wholesale availability is tight or nonexistent for some important wines, area retailers still possess reasonable stocks of most Cuvee de Prestige bottlings. If you shop now, you'll almost certainly get what you want. But if you wait, you might get shut out, and in any case, last-minute shipments aren't likely to be any cheaper than what's out there now.

Top performers from my recent tastings are listed below in alphabetical order--rather than in my usual order of preference-- because these wines are all so outstanding that distinctions among them are largely subjective. As you'll see, these are extremely expensive, money-is-no-object, once-every-thousand-years wines. Those who find the prices unpalatable should know that columnist Ben Giliberti and I will review more affordable and available bottlings later in the year. I've also included a note below on a breakthrough cheapie for those needing lots of bubbly for parties.

Cuvee Dom Perignon 1992 ($110): A beautiful, seamless wine with uncanny balance and integration. Complex, complete and utterly convincing. Equal to its reputation? Absolutely! The rare Rose 1988 ($225) is also staggeringly beautiful.

Krug 1989 ($160): A fabulous bottle from a controversially ripe vintage that is now at the optimal point of maturity. Big, rich and soft, but also very powerfully flavored. Krug's Grande Cuvee bottling ($130) is also superlative.

Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne 1995 ($100): The famous "flower bottle" Champagne stakes its claim on frothy freshness and an ethereal grace rather than power, and if this is your style, you can't do better than this wine.

Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay 1990 ($85): A stunning, virtually perfect wine, with an expected Blanc de Blancs elegance but also an astonishing depth of flavor and creamy textural richness.

Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1985 ($200): Still fresh and bright after 15 years, but also sensationally complex thanks to all that bottle age. Loaded with subtle nuances, this is a phenomenal wine in both cerebral and hedonistic terms.

Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame 1990 ($120): "Muscular" may seem an odd descriptor for a fine Champagne, but this wine shows such intense flavor impact that nothing less will do. Despite its power, it also shows a soft, ripe core of fruit and a seemingly endless finish.


Chandon Argentina Brut Fresco ($12; distributed by Forman in the District): Offers very clean and remarkably complex flavors for a bottling in this price category. The soft and rounded but still structured texture is uncanny in its resemblance to true Champagne, and since this newly available product blew away every one of my favorite moderately priced sparklers, it gets my vote as party wine of the year.

Michael Franz will answer questions today live from New Zealand between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. on