Sparkling wine: decoding the labels

Columnist December 3, 2013

A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the sparkling-wine label notations “extra brut” and “extra dry” both mean not so dry. In fact, “extra dry” is sweeter than brut, while “extra brut” is drier.

Sparkling wine could grace my table every day. It does not require a celebration; it creates a celebration. The bubbles streaming to the top of the glass sweeten my sourest of moods and brighten my darkest of days. They also clear my palate, making sparkling wine an excellent partner to food. Yet bubbles have become so identified with celebrations rather than daily drinking that in this country, the vast majority of sparkling wine is bought and drunk in December.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

So it’s time to call out the bubbly brigade for a primer on the various styles of sparkling wine and where the values lie. Today and over the next two weeks, in the column and recommendations sidebar, I will offer pointers on what to expect and what to look for when shopping for your holiday bubbly. First up: how to read a sparkling-wine label.

Champagne, of course, is the benchmark for fizz, so much so that we typically refer to any wine with bubbles as champagne. True champagne comes only from the region of that name in northern France, but most high-quality sparkling wine made in the world uses the champagne method of inducing the secondary (gas) fermentation in the bottle while the wine ages on its lees in the winery cellar. That method helps develop complexity in the wine, including the fine “bead” of bubbles rising from the bottom of the glass. It is noted on the label as “méthode champenoise,” “méthode traditionelle,” or even “traditional method.” That’s the winery’s signal to you that it has invested the time and effort to make wine in the champagne style.

Most sparkling wines don’t have a vintage date. That’s because the base wines — the still wine before the secondary fermentation in the bottle — are typically blends of two or three years. That technique allows a winery to develop a “house style” that remains consistent from year to year despite vintage variations. In good years, most houses will bottle their best wines as a single-vintage cuvée. Those usually are aged longer before release and are more expensive.

The most confusing part of a sparkling wine label is the designation of sweetness. “Brut,” the descriptor most commonly seen, means dry. “Extra dry,” however, means not so dry. It doesn’t make sense; just remember that extra dry is slightly sweeter than dry. (“Demi-sec” is a sweet version intended for dessert.) “Extra brut” is drier than brut, and “brut nature” is the driest of all, made without the “dosage” of sugar added when the lees are disgorged. Brut nature is a modern, cutting-edge trend that might or might not last. It can add focus to a wine, but its detractors argue that the dosage balances the acidity and creates a more harmonic wine.

Then there are other styles of sparkling wine. Crémant wines are made in France, but outside of Champagne, using the traditional method. They are usually made with regional grapes — chenin blanc in the Loire, Riesling or pinot blanc in Alsace, chardonnay in Burgundy — giving them a regional character.

Cava is Spain’s claim to bubbly fame and is arguably the best value in fizz. You can get decent cava for under $10 (Jaume Serra Cristalino is a top value brand), and cavas closer to $20 can successfully imitate champagnes that cost twice as much. 

Italy offers Franciacorta, a Champagne-method wine that is fairly hard to find in the United States and as pricey as champagne. Italy’s best bargain, though, is prosecco, a gentle fizz from the Veneto region around Venice that can be an ideal start to any meal (and yes, I would include breakfast, but that’s just me).

As you toast your family and friends these holidays, remember to raise glasses of bubbly throughout the year to celebrate life’s triumphs or turn a minor defeat into a victory. Yeah, bubbles can do that.

Next week: Wine books for Christmas gifts, and sparkling wines from around the world. In two weeks: Champagne and its high-end alternatives. McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

More from Food:

Wine

SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=food}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=food}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments