How to Read a Sparkling Wine Label

A cheat sheet before breaking out the bubbly

 


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 between 12 and 20 grams of sugar per liter. These wines are in fact a bit sweeter as they tend to the upper end of their range

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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.

To view the photos for this article, go to Learning the Lingo of Sparkling Wine.

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