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Tis the season… when consumers around the world engage in the art of massive gift buying.  For many (American) wine consumers, the winter shopping season includes obligatory visits to local wine shops or grocery store wine isles for their annual bubbly purchases.

For reasons that are not completely clear to me, many American wine consumers tend to reserve bubbly consumption for holidays like New Years Eve or special occasions like weddings or anniversaries.

Around this time of year many of my casual wine consuming friends and colleagues ask for recommendations for holiday fizz.  Before dispensing advice on what bottles of bubbly to consider, I first remind them that bubbly, Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Franciacorta or any other fizz is intended for year-round consumption.

Along with requests for specific recommendations, my friends and colleagues almost always ask, ‘what does Brut mean?’  To help clear up some of the label confusion, I offer to email them a cheat sheet to decipher Champagne and other sparkling wine styles.

I also post this same simple primer here on the blog every couple of years as a reminder to readers that may be gearing up for their annual bottle shop pilgrimage.  For locals here in Southeastern, Virginia, deciphering label terms will be the subject of my next column for our local public broadcasting station’s site.

Making sense of labels — a simple guide to sparkling wine styles (defined by level of sweetness):*

  • Ultra Brut / Brut Nature / Extra Brut / Brut Zero: The driest sparkling wines — No dosage, No added sugar.  I have seen Ultra Brut Champagne marketed on shelf talkers as ‘diet Champagne‘ because of the lack of sugar.  (0-6 grams per liter residual sugar)
  • Brut:  Should taste dry with no perception of sweetness.  This is the most common style of sparkling wine you’ll find in local stores.  (Contains no more than 12 grams/liter residual sugar)
  • Extra Dry/Extra Sec:  Off dry — tastes slightly sweet. (contains 12-17 grams/liter residual sugar)
  • Sec:  Translates in to ‘dry’ — Noticeably sweet.    (contains 17-32 grams/liter residual sugar)
  • Demi-Sec:  Sweet. (32-50 grams/liter residual sugar)
  • Doux:  Sweetest. (contains 50+ grams/liter residual sugar)

* The sweetness levels noted for each of the classifications above varies slightly among multiple sources, regions and producers.

Below are a few more bubbly label basics that readers may find helpful:

  • Champagne is always sparkling wine but sparkling wine isn’t always Champagne.  Only sparkling wines made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of northeastern France that adhere to rules requiring secondary fermentation in the bottle can be labeled ‘Champagne.’
  • Champagne is almost always produced using one (or more) of three permitted grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Our Christmas Eve bubbly -J.L. Vergnon Extra Brut Champagne (from France).

Our Christmas Eve bubbly — J.L. Vergnon Extra Brut (totally dry) Champagne.

  • In Italy, the term Spumante (which means ‘foaming’) is used for sparkling wines, as is Prosecco and Franciacorta depending on region and/or grape varieties used.
  • Cava is Spanish sparkling wine made in the same way as Champagne.  Arguably some of the best values in sparkling wine today.
  • In Germany the term Sekt is used for sparkling wine.
Trump Winery 2008 Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay.  Virginia.

Trump Winery 2008 Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay. Virginia.

  • Blanc de Blanc — French for white from white. Made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.
  • Blanc de Noir — French for white from black.  Made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two.
  • NV — Non-Vintage.  Meaning the bottle of sparkling wine is a blend of juice from more than one vintage (year).

For a more thorough treatment of Champagne, sparkling wine, et.al., Wikipedia has an informative entry:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Traditionnelle or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sparkling_wine

I hope you find this basic primer useful.   Please check back on Thursday for bubbly recommendations.