Navigating the often confusing and treacherous terrain of vague labels and marketing jargon can be a nightmare in almost any wine shop or grocery store wine aisle. Deciphering the codes and ciphers wineries and importers splash onto ornate and decorative labels can make even seasoned wine experts dizzy and fatigued. Sparkling wine descriptions can be especially difficult to fathom amongst all this complicated terminology and convoluted wine language. How can any consumer be expected to choose the correct sparkling wine for their next gathering or celebration? Fear not, for with a little simple explanation of a few terms, this possibly tumultuous and perplexing task will be within easy grasp for all wine lovers, whether a novice or a seasoned pro.
The first trick to understanding the problematic language usually found on wine labels is to identify the method in which the sparkling wine was produced. Let’s start by discussing the four main methods for producing sparkling wines.
1. The Traditional Method
The traditional method (sometimes called the Champagne Method, or the method champenoise) is the original way that commercial sparkling wines were made. With this method, freshly fermented wine is bottled with a few grams of sugar and yeast. This causes a second fermentation to occur in the bottle which produces trapped carbon dioxide (otherwise known as the bubbles). The wines are then placed on a riddling rack which holds the wine at a downward angle and the wines are gently rotated to push all the sediment into the neck of the bottle. Typically sparkling wines made via this method can age for at least a year and a half, at which point all the flavors will have been developed. By freezing the neck of the wine, the winemaker can uncap the wine and remove the sediment, and then a small amount of previously finished wine is added to top up the bottle. From this point it is corked and finished although it may undergo additional bottle aging depending on the vintage or winery. There are many wineries around the world using the traditional method, but the most famous area is the Champagne region of France. All wine labeled as Champagne should be made via the traditional method and because of fairly strict labeling laws there are few remaining wines labeled as Champagne that are not from this region of France. California, Spain, Germany and Italy also have wineries that use the traditional method as well and will have labeled their wines accordingly. This is the history of the traditional method, but the important thing to know about the traditional method is how it affects the wine. Wines made with the traditional method tend to be less fruit forward than other wines with a focus more on toast, caramel and nut flavor. They have a creamy texture and mouthfeel with smaller and less aggressive effervescence than other sparkling wines. They also require the most work in the wine cellar and are generally the most expensive type of sparkling wines produced. A small percentage of wines produced with the traditional method will also last for long periods of time in the finished bottle cellar and have been known to age and improve for decades.
2. The Charmat Method
The Charmat Method was developed to try and create a faster, easier and less expensive way to duplicate the traditional method. Instead of placing the wine in bottles with sugar and yeast, the secondary fermentation takes place in large sealed tanks that trap the bubbles of carbon dioxide. This method dramatically shortens the time needed to finish these wines and the wine is then bottled straight from the tank. Traditionalists argue that the bubbles and mouthfeel produced via this method are not as refined as via the traditional method; however there is less variability between bottles and a more consistent bottle to bottle final product. The Charmat method is mostly used for fruity style sparkling wines that are almost always meant to be consumed young. Labels may also sometimes refer to the “Italian” method for these wines as many Italian sparkling wines like Prosecco and Asti have popularized its use. These wines will have bigger and more aggressive bubbles with highly fruit forward flavors. These wines also tend to be less expensive than wines produced via the Traditional Method.
3. The Transfer Method
The Transfer Method for sparkling wines can be thought of similar to a hybrid of the Traditional and Charmat methods. The wine will undergo a secondary fermentation within a bottle, but then will be transferred back into a tank to be blended and filtered before being rebottled. This helps to reduce bottle to bottle variability and to easily filter the wine to remove any and all sediment. If a bottle of sparkling wine is labeled as “bottle fermented”, but does not mention the Traditional or Champagne Method, then it has probably been produced using the Transfer Method. The characters present in wines produced via this method tend to resemble those produced via the Traditional Method.
4. The Gas Injection Method
The simplest method for creating sparkling wines is the Gas Injection Method. In this method, carbon dioxide gas is injected into finished wines within a tank and then bottled trapping the gas. This method is similar to the way many sodas or sparkling waters are created. The bubbles from this method tend to be very large and aggressive and the wine styles are generally more fruit driven with less of the caramel, nut and toast flavors present. Most wines created via this method are intended for immediate consumption and are very fruit forward. These wines also tend to be the least expensive sparkling wines available. Inexpensive wines simply labeled as “sparkling” with no mention of the method of production or specific place of origin are usually produced this way. Although these wines tend to be less expensive than some of the other methods, many great, fruit driven and refreshing wines can be produced in this manner.
Now that we know how the wine is produced and what affect that will have on the wine, the second trick for decoding sparkling wine labels is to pinpoint the perceptible amount of sweetness in the wine. Many sparkling wine labels still use the traditional Champagne region designations for sugar levels, and without an understanding for how these terms translate, it can be very easy for a consumer to choose a wine with an undesirable sweetness level. Let’s look at the terms commonly used for sweetness in sparkling wines and what they really mean.
1. Extra Brut
Sparkling wines labeled as “Extra Brut” will be the driest, with less than 6 grams of residual sugar.
The most popular sugar level for sparkling wines, “Brut” is used to designate wines containing between 12 and 6 grams of sugar. A “Brut” would be around the same perception as a normal dry table wine.
3. Extra Dry
Sparkling wines with sugar levels between 12 and 17 grams are labeled as “Extra Dry”. Some sweetness will start to be perceptible at this level. An “Extra Dry” sparkling wine would be comparable to an off-dry or semi-dry table wine.
“Sec” designations on wine labels will denote a definite perceptible sugar in the wine, with levels ranging from 17 and 32 grams of sugar. These sparkling wines would be similar to a semi-sweet table wine.
Ranging between 32 and 50 grams of residual sugar, “Demi-Sec” sparkling wines have a strong sugar presence. These are comparable to sweet table wines.
The sweetest sparkling wine designation is “Doux” and these wines will have greater than 50 grams of residual sugar. These are comparable to dessert wines and are strikingly sweet.
These two simple tricks are the basic building blocks for developing an understanding of sparkling wines. By knowing the basics of how the wine is produced and what that means for the flavors and textures of the wine, and also the level of sweetness in the wine, a consumer can easily pick a wine that best meets his or her needs and desires. The headache and guesswork that often comes with puzzling wine labels can be alleviated and the process of choosing a wine can be much more enjoyable.