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Wiens on Wine - Sparkling Wine Part 2 – Understanding the Label

Posted on October 6, 2023

This post originally appeared in our Wine Line email newsletter. Stan was kind enough to let us post it on our blog as well. Thanks, Stan!

Learn alongside Stan as he completes WSET Level 4.

Days to Final Exam: 256

This week’s focus: Sparkling Wine (Part 2 – Understanding the Label)

Before we get into key styles and regions for great sparkling wine, there is one other key factor to making great purchasing choices. Last week we looked at the various methods of production, which impact the overall quality and style (see previous “Wine Line” for Part 1). Today we are going to look at how to read the label, which can be very confusing. So let’s get into it.

There are two dominant questions when someone is trying to purchase sparkling wine.

  • How sweet is it?
  • What does “Blanc de Noirs” / “NV” / Prestige Cuvee / etc. mean?

Sweetness Level

When I am talking to someone about sweetness level, preferences and perception matter. Some like bone-dry wine. Others like sweet, semi-sweet wine or only a hint of sweetness. A key factor that impacts the perception of sweetness is the level of acidity in that wine. I always consider the climate of a region when trying to interpret how much sugar is in that wine. Cool climates typically retain higher acidity and warmer regions typically have lower acidity and retain more of the fruity characteristics. For example, if I am buying a bottle of Champagne, I know it is from a cool region, indicating that the wine will be high in acidity and therefore masking the perception of sugar. How much sugar is it masking?

Here is the standard grid to interpret the amount of Residual Sugar in the bottle:

  • Brut Nature or Zero Dosage 0-3 g/L (up to 3 grams of residual sugar in a litre of wine)
  • Extra Brut 0-6 g/L
  • Brut 0-12 g/L
  • Extra-Sec or Extra Dry 12-17g/L
  • Sec or Dry 17-32 g/L
  • Demi-Sec or Medium Dry 32-50 g/L
  • Doux or Sweet 50+ g/L

It is worth noting that if it states “Sec” or “Dry” on the bottle, it is likely to have a fair bit of sweetness to it. I find this to be the biggest area of confusion for customers. You may have preferred to purchase Brut or Extra Brut. Also, there is no mistaking that you are buying a sweeter style when you purchase a “Demi-Sec” but it is not so clear when you can see the range of residual sugar in some of the “dryer” styles. A producer may use the lower or higher end of the range. So to be fair, the “grid” only gets you in the general region of what you can expect from your wine. Knowing the producer's winemaking style helps you hit the bull's eye.

Understand Labelling Terms

NV – Non-Vintage - Typically a blend from more than one specific year, create a “house style”.

Vintage - In favourable years at least 85% of the wine if from that vintage year. If it is Champagne, it must be 100% from that specific vintage.

Blanc de Blanc - white wine from white grape varieties (ie. Chardonnay)

Blanc de Noirs - white wine from black grape varieties (ie. Pinot Noir)

Grand Cru and Premier Cru - a statement of quality; grapes are from the best vineyards

Prestige Cuvee - this indicates it is the best wine in a specific producers range

Obviously, there is an endless amount of detail we could dive into but this covers most of the typical purchasing decisions. Enjoy!

Fun Fact:

Sparkling wine from cool climates (Champagne, England, Tasmania, Trentodoc, Sonoma (if located close to the Ocean influences)), have a higher acidity, leading you to perceive that your wine has less Residual Sugar. You are now equipped to make better choices.

The lower the level of alcohol, the more likely the wine is to be sweeter in style. For example, if you have a wine with 9.5% ABV compared to another wine with 11.5%ABV (assuming there are similar in style, like two different Prosecco), the 9.5% ABV is almost certain to be sweeter.

Homework: Try two different sparkling wines with the same stated level of sweetness to appreciate the variance between different producers.

Stan Wiens can be found working at our shop sporadically in between lengthy bouts of drinking wine ("studying") in order to complete Level 4 of the WSET program.

You can also find Stan on Instagram: @wiensonwine

This entry was posted in Wine, Champagne, Wiens on Wine



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