Sweet options for New Year's: Not all champagnes are brut

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"I am probably not alone in being tired of reading about 'brut' this and 'brut' that regarding champagnes and sparkling drinks for the holidays," read the e-mail from frustrated reader Joseph Ferguson after my second column this month extolling the virtues of dry bubbles. "I like sweet champagnes and sparkling wines, and I am sure I am not alone in my taste," he continued. "Please -- enough of 'dry finish, bright acidity, etc.' for a while. In all the thousands of wines in the world, there must be many that are both sweet and highly regarded. Write about them."

Even before I stopped laughing, I had to concede his point. Wine lovers crave acidity, and "dry" is all too often considered a prerequisite of good quality. Sweet wines have their place, of course; cheese and dessert come to mind. But they are easy to overlook. Consumers with a sweet tooth find themselves trapped in a Hobbesian state of nature, where wines are "nasty, brutish and short."

Sugar and bubbles can work magic. Strawberries and champagne? Works best with a sweeter wine, as the sugar wraps a soothing blanket around the tart acidity (oh, that word!) of the fruit. Brut champagne is versatile enough to go with much of dinner, including dessert. With most finales, however, a brut will be surpassed by a demi-sec.

There are sweet sparkles other than champagne, of course. France's Loire Valley produces unctuous wines from chenin blanc (although most sparkling chenins now on the market are dry). Sparkling wines from the southwestern France region of Gaillac will thrill apple cider lovers: Think Martinelli's sparkling cider with a kick. It's a small kick, however, as many of these wines are lower in alcohol than we're used to. From eastern France come the delightfully sweet pink wines called Vins du Bugey-Cerdon, which play well before, during or after dinner.

Spain produces delightful sweet fizz from moscatel grapes, also known as muscat, or in Italy as moscato. Italy's low-alcohol, moderately sweet and slightly fizzy Moscato d'Asti wines make an excellent drink for morning-after brunch parties during the holidays. They almost scream for blueberry pancakes (again, tart fruit balancing the sweet wine). Italy also produces the delightful Brachetto d'Acqui, a fizzy sweet red that works wonders with chocolate.

So how to tell whether the sparkling wine you are considering buying is sweet? Unfortunately, the label doesn't always tell us very clearly; often the terms of art have evolved over centuries and require an educated consumer. (Is it any wonder wine can seem so intimidatingly snobby?)

Champagne has a pretty rigorous nomenclature, based on the amount of dosage -- sugar -- added to the wine at bottling. "Demi-sec," which confusingly translates as "half-dry," is what sweet-craving drinkers should look for. "Extra dry" is, of course, not dry; that would be too easy. But it is not as sweet as the half-dry. "Brut" is dry but not as dry as the new category, "extra brut," which does mean "extra dry."

Sparkling wine producers around the world have adopted the champagne system, so you'll find wines from California, Australia and South America labeled "brut." New World demi-secs are rare, though California's Schramsberg winery makes a nice one.

If the label doesn't seem to indicate sweetness, check the alcohol level. Low alcohol typically indicates that the wine hasn't been totally fermented but still keeps much of its sugar. Champagnes usually are about 12 percent alcohol, while Moscato d'Asti is often as low as 5 percent.

So if your sweet tooth is aching for a less brutish celebration this holiday season, rest assured there are plenty of potable ways to end the year on a sweet note.

McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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