Buying Champagne can be confusing. So many different producers, types, and more. Really it is not that important, and Champagne is a great beverage not just for celebrations, but anytime. It is an amazingly food friendly and tasty wine.
First, the absolute basics. Champagne is from Champagne France. Anything else is not. Now there are some lovely sparkling wines from other parts of the world like Spain, Italy, California, Australia, and even Massachusetts, but they are difference. They do not taste the same as they are not grown in the same soil with the same environment. The French use the word terrior to describe this. A wine should taste like its terrior, when it came from, and wines from different places do taste different.
The least expensive is NV or Non Vintage. This is produced by blending grapes from multiple vintages to produce a consistently and very good product every year. Not every year has great grapes, and even among years of the same quality the grapes will taste differently due to the weather and other aspects of the growing season. If we pick an NV, for example Moet and Chandon's popular White Label, it is extremely consistent year in and year out, as well as very tasty!
Vintage Champagnes will bear a vintage, the year the grapes were grown, and all the grapes will be from that year. Most houses only produce Vintage bubbly in very good to great years, and some recent vintages for most major producers include 1985, `1988, 1990, 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2002. Every vintage will taste different and will have the characteristics of that growing year. For example the 1988 vintage was rather reserved when young and took many years to soften whereas most 1990s were more accessible and creamy tasting in their youth. Vintage Champagnes tend to be more expensive and better wines than NVs as they come from grapes grown in better years.
Many producers also make a high end Vintage, called a Prestige Cuvee. These are produced in vantage years from only the best of all grapes and command a higher price as they are better wines. Some famous examples of prestige cuvees include Krug, Dom Perignon, and Cristal. For many of us, they are well worth their price which may go from a hundred dollars well on up in price.
There are wonderful Champagnes of all types, and for a neophyte looking to explore the wines, the NVs are a great and tasty place to begin!