Learning the Lingo of Sparkling Wine

A cheat sheet for deciphering labels


When buying sparkling wine you’ll find that there’s more to know than simply the type of brand of wine. Whether you’re looking for Cava, or Champagne, you’ll have to be ready to decipher the lingo on the label if you want to be sure to come out with the right sparkler for you. That means learning, for example, which is sweet, dry or extra dry and what you can expect from a blanc de noir versus a blanc de blanc.

The first step in figuring out which sparkling wine is for you might very well begin with price, followed by style. While there are value-priced Champagnes on the market you might find you’ll get a better bang for your buck opting for a Cava from Spain or a Prosecco from Italy, even though these wines can be very different than Champagne. And then there are the Metodo Classicos, or Methode Champenoise, from around the world that emulate Champagne. It all seems very confusing, and we can be left wondering, "Where to begin?".

Champagne and Methode Champenoise wines

Well, the easiest place to begin, is at the beginning with Champagne. I say this only because it’s a logical place to begin but also because much of what works in Champagne also works around the world for the multitudes of Methode Champenoise wines that are now produced. The only thing I can’t relate here may very well be the most important, and that is each Champagne house’s or sparkling wine producer’s individual style. The best bet in learning more about the house styles that you have in your market is to discuss this with a trusted retailer. He or she can point you toward a wine that is light and crisp, or one that is toasty and rich, better then my broad remarks can.

Vintage vs. non-vintage

Once you’ve identified a house style that you like, the easiest place to begin is to decide whether you’re looking for a vintage or non-vintage bottling. By their very natures, vintage dated bottles of Champagne tend to be more distinctive than their non-vintage brethren.

The reasoning is very simple. The non-vintage bottling is by its very nature not as great a Champagne as can be made in any particular year. It is, instead, the best of that house’s style that can be produced every year. A non-vintage bottling is the epitome of house style and a great way to learn about the various styles of Champagne. I buy non-vintage Champagne, a 6-pack each year, and drink a bottle each year from each 6-pack. I find that most non-vintage Champagne is at its best between about two to four years after release.

Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs

Champagne can be made from a single grape variety of a blend. In most cases it’s safe to assume that your wine is a blend unless otherwise specified on the label.

Blanc de Blancs refers to wines made from white grapes, such as Chardonnay, in particular, when it comes to Champagne. These tend to be crisp and elegant with vibrant orchard-fruit tones.

Blanc de Noirs refers to white sparkling wines made from red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Champagne. The juice of virtually every red grape is actually clear so a quick pressing off the skins results in white wines such as these. The flavor of the wines retains hints of red fruits and tend to be somewhat richer than their Blanc de Blanc cousins.

Rosé sparkling wines

Rosé sparkling wines are pink to quite red wines, much like the still versions. There are two ways to producing a rosé. The first involves leaving the juice in contact with the skins of the red grapes for a period of time. It is also possible to produce a rosé by blending red wine and white wine. Rosés can be among the richest of sparkling wines and have fruit flavors that lean decidedly in the berry direction.

The terminology used to indicate the sweetness or dryness of a sparkling wine can be confusing, but at least they are consistent across most countries.

Brut Natural, Extra-Brut and Brut

Sparkling wines labeled "Brut Natural," "Brut Nature," or "Brut Zero" have less than 3 grams per liter of residual sugar and are considered dry.

Sparking wines labeled "Extra-Brut" have up to 6 grams per liter of residual sugar and still taste dry but are richer and fruiter than "Brut Zeros." These are perfect wines for brunch.

Sparkling wines labeled "Brut" have up to 15 grams per liter of residual sugar and can begin to be noticeably sweet though producers generally keep Brut fairly dry.

Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux

Sparkling wines labeled "Extra Sec," "Extra Seco," or "Extra Dry" have 12-20 grams of sugar per liter. These wines are in fact a bit sweeter as they tend to the upper end of their range


Sparkling wines labeled as "Sec" or "Seco" have between 17 and 35 grams of sugar per liter and are noticeably sweet.

Sparkling wines labeled "Demi-Sec" or "Semi-Seco" have between 33 and 50 grams per liter and are fairly sweet, though the bottom end of the range still produces wines that can seem dry to the most sugar-tolerant.

Wines labeled "Doux" or "Dolce" have at least 50 grams of sugar per liter and are exactly what they claim to be: Sweet.

How to Read a Sparkling Wine Label

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  • Snooth User: LucyPH
    611783 4

    Recently I had a "VERY slightly sparkling" red table wine in the Piemonte region (Traversa, LaGiovincella) and can't find it here. It was dry and tasted like a cross between a pinot noir and a chianti. Any recommendations? Everything I've tried here is way too sweet for me.

    Dec 30, 2010 at 1:04 PM

  • Snooth User: JD Colmar
    473511 2

    The Cavas you reviewed are all very mainstream. There are many which exceed the quality of those mentioned and are huge values, Pares Balta and Gran Pasion for instance. There are also some made totally from Chardonnay and some from Chardonnay and Pinot which come from the Penedes region. They are fantastic wines!

    Dec 30, 2010 at 1:16 PM

  • Snooth User: mmozell
    277312 8

    Gee, thanks for the clear and concise definition of "Méthode Champenoise!!" Easy to describe, but lengthy, why not give it a shot? You must know that this would create yet another page for us to look at and increase your SRO! (I am growing so tired of being your pawn to a greater web presence!) Gee whiz, Gregory.....!!

    Dec 30, 2010 at 3:39 PM

  • We were in the Champagne region of France for one full week in October of 2010. We visited several small producers including Manuel Janisson. This guy has his own Champagne House (3rd generation) but I discovered that he makes the Costco Kirkland Champagne. See my article on GoodCheapVino.com http://bit.ly/gp8A88

    Dec 30, 2010 at 5:03 PM

  • Snooth User: Flying 44
    697996 20

    Interesting article. However you fail to mention the fact that Australia produces a sparkling RED wine! Mostly it's shiraz but some wineries also make their sparkling wine with pinot noir. Oviously, sparkling red has quite a bit more body than a sparkling rosé or a sparkling white, but the taste is more than interesting! I've served it with BBQed meats and it's GREAT!

    Dec 30, 2010 at 6:23 PM

  • Snooth User: kincaid
    166137 26

    one of those is the Mateus Rosé Sparkling... a good choise to celebrate 2010/11.

    Dec 31, 2010 at 5:00 AM

  • Snooth User: apps
    370206 4

    thant for the new web site goodcheapvino.com

    Dec 31, 2010 at 7:55 AM

  • Snooth User: Flying 44
    697996 20

    Reply to Kinkaid,
    NOOOO! I wasn't talking about Rosé bubblies...but RED sprarkling wines. The Australian RED sparkling wines are made with shiraz or pinot noir grapes and the result is truly RED! Nothing to do with the Portuguese rosé such as Mateus. BTW, that particular wine is on the sweet side.

    Jan 01, 2011 at 1:42 PM

  • Snooth User: EBGB
    902774 24

    LucyPH - sounds like you're talking about Lambrusco. Try wine-searcher.com for a retailer in your area. A lot of it isn't very exciting, but the good ones are lovely.

    Dec 31, 2012 at 12:06 PM

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