Reading Champagne Labels
I was at the store in the wine section looking for some sparkling wines. It was Valentine’s Day and a man asked me what he should get his sweetie, as though I knew her drinking tastes. Or maybe he thinks all women like the same sparkling wines.
Anyway, I politely asked him what she normally likes to drink and he pointed to a bottle of Korbel Brut on the shelf. He was holding a bottle by an inexpensive producer labeled Extra Dry. I told him that was not the same style as the Korbel and she might not like that one. He gave me a curious look and asked to help him “up his game”. I suggested a Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. I explained that for only an additional $10, this sparkling would provide a far superior drinking experience; and most importantly, help him score some “honey” points. He thanked me and left as I wished he well.
But this conversation got me thinking that most people really don’t understand sparkling wine and champagne labels. But why should they? The producers certainly do not make it easy. But that’s the fault of the French. They think you should just know these things.
On the front of every Champagne label and sparkling wine too, you will find one of these six levels of sweetness listed. But the styles or sweetness levels can seem counter-intuitive. Here’s what I mean.
- Extra Brut – This is bone dry, with only the faintest amount of residual sugar. You may see it labeled as Ultra Brut, Brut Zero or San Dosage. This is so dry it may feel like it’ll take the enamel off of your teeth. It has a puckering sensation in your mouth similar to that experienced when you drink an acidic Sauvignon Blanc. But, just like Sauv Blanc, Extra Brut is perfect for oysters.
- Brut – A Brut is the most common style you’ll find on the shelves at grocers, wine shops and other retailers. There’s a bit of sugar, 1.5%, which is expressed as 0-15 grams per liter (g/l). You are not going to “taste” sweetness in this. However, it will not be dry like a red wine. Tannins give red wine that “bite” that turns off some people. Brut or dry sparkling wine is not going to give you that same bite; so if you don’t like red wine, don’t think you won’t like this sparkling either. It’s totally different!
- Extra Sec / Extra Dry – This is a bit of a misnomer and confusing because the wine is not dry. It actually has between 1.2% – 2.0% sugar (12-20 g/l); making it somewhat sweet. Not knowing this often results in many disappointing purchases.
- Sec – This style is slightly sweet with a range of sugar 1.7%-3.5% (17-35g/l). After tasting, your taste buds will immediately register that you drank something “sweet”.
- Demi-sec – This is truly a sweet champagne. It’s like soft drink sweet, with 3.5%-5.0% g/l of sugar (3.5%-5.0%)
- Doux – Drinking this Champagne may trigger you to sing Just a Spoonful of Sugar, from Mary Poppins. Your taste buds will immediately register “super sweet”. This qualifies as a dessert champagne given it has sugar greater than 5.0% (50 g/l) Wow!
For some ideas on which French Champagne to buy for a special occasion, click.
So the next time you are out shopping for a Champagne, pull up this sweetness level guide on your phone and read the label so you go home with the bottle that will make your night.