A much-needed explainer on everyone’s favorite form of fizz.

By Betty Gold
February 07, 2020

Nothing says "celebrate!" quite like a bottle of bubbly, which is what makes it the drink of choice to toast with on Valentine’s Day. It’s versatile too: sparkling wine’s light and refreshing enough to sip on its own but also pairs perfectly with party foods and desserts galore.

No matter how much you love Champagne or sparkling wine, chances are you’ve been (at some point) intimidated by the task of buying a bottle. What’s the difference between Brut and Demi Sec, or Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noir, or Prosecco and Cava? Here are five facts that'll help you select and serve bubbles better from expert sommelier Christopher Hoel, founder of Harper’s Club and wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co.

Champagne by any other name is not Champagne.

In order to be designated as Champagne, the sparkling wine must be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and follow very specific Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) production regulations. Without this naming, you’re likely drinking sparkling wines known as Cava (from Spain), Prosecco (from Italy), Crémant (made in the same style as Champagne, but produced from French grapes in different regions), or sparkling wines that come from growing regions from all over the world. "Those regions could include the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom just to name a few," explains Hoel. "That said, I am not a sparkling wine purist! While I love a good Champagne, many people are intimidated by its cost and prestige. Luckily, you can get fantastic Cava, Prosecco, and other sparkling wines for well under $20."

RELATED: 6 Delicious, Affordable Types of Sparkling Wine That Aren't Champagne or Prosecco

Sugar plays a key role in giving Champagne its bubbles and alcohol (in addition to sweetness).

Perhaps the biggest differentiator among Champagnes is the range of sweetness you’ll taste. Wine drinkers tend to have strong preferences about how sweet they like their bubbles, and it all comes down to how the wine was produced.

Most Champagne winemakers favor a method of winemaking referred to as the Methode Champenoise, relying on secondary fermentation in the bottle rather than a tank. This method also involves a process of remuage (or periodic shaking) that involves removing dead yeast (called lees) and re-corking the wine.

The secondary fermentation also involves the addition of sugar, (a process known as “dosage”) to counteract the high acidity of Champagne. Words like “Brut” or “Sec” provide an estimate of how much sugar was added and, therefore, how sweet the wine will taste. These descriptions apply to other sparkling wines as well.

The sweetness level also determines what foods pair best with your bubbly.

Brut Nature (Brut Zero): Completely dry, and as the name implies, zero sugar. Enjoy a glass of this versatile bubbly with your favorite fried dishes such as Calamari or French fries.

Extra Brut: Minimal sugar and sweetness; should taste dry. The high acidity (and minimal sugar) makes this bottle perfect for washed rind cheeses that you can pair with jam and crackers. 

Brut: One of the drier options, and similarly the most common. Due to the level of crispness, this is the most food-friendly pairing bottle. Enjoy a Brut alongside a rotisserie chicken or grilled fish.

Extra Dry (extra-sec): Medium dry, with a hint of sweetness. Try pairing with a dessert cheese platter featuring double-cream brie, almonds, and honey.

Dry (sec): Noticeably sweet. Balance out the sweetness by pairing a glass with savory bites like buttered popcorn or salami.

Demi-sec: Medium sweetness. Demi-sec marks the beginning of the dessert wine classification. Serve slightly chilled, as it’ll help counteract the sweetness and preserve the more delicate flavors in each sip.

Doux: Very sweet, and officially considered a dessert wine. As a rule of thumb, Doux Champagne is considered a sipping wine and is seen as an accompaniment, rather than the main event. Try to remain cognizant of serving size to avoid over-pouring your guests.

The grapes you're toasting with can differ bottle by bottle.

Understanding which types of grapes were used to make your bottle of bubbly will help you find the best style (and price point) for your palette. Thankfully, it’s all in the label:

Blanc de Blanc: This quite literally translates to “white from whites,” and means the wine was produced exclusively with white grapes. Blanc de Blanc Champagnes are made with 100% Chardonnay grapes. In rare cases, this process can involve using Pinot Blanc grapes as well. While initially used to refer to still wines, “blanc de blanc” is now almost exclusively used to refer to sparkling wines and is the epitome of Champagne. The resulting wine bears a strong resemblance to a Chardonnay and has minerality and chalkiness. Think of yellow-hued foods here, like butter, lemons, and tart apples for pairing inspiration.

Blanc de Noir: Similarly, Blanc de Noir, or “white from reds” are made from red grapes, most often Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Interestingly, despite the inclusion of red grapes, Champagne maintains its light coloring because it spends almost zero amount of time in contact with the skins during the winemaking process. These bottles tend to be fruitier and a bit more full-bodied due to the inclusion of red grapes. Red fruits, like raspberries and strawberries, tend to best complement a Blanc de Noir.

Brut Rosé: Another style is a brut rosé, which as the name suggests, has a pink hue to it thanks to either the inclusion of red grape skins or the addition of still red wine to the sparkling white wine (depending on the winemaker’s preferred process). While the lovely pink bottle may infer sweetness, it’s actually a rather dry, acidic wine. Whether you’re staying in or dining out, you simply cannot go wrong with a brut rosé. As a Valentine’s Day favorite, it pairs well with Chinese takeout, while also enhancing the flavor of fancier seafood dishes like sauteed salmon or roasted pork.

RELATED: These Red Wines Are Actually Best Served Chilled, Says a Sommelier

Vintage doesn't mean the Champagne is old—it means that the grapes came from one single year.

You may also notice a label designation of “Vintage” or “NV” on the bottle, which refers to whether or not the grapes fermented in one year (vintage) or over multiple years (non-vintage.) The important thing to note here is that vintage champagnes tend to be pricier, whereas non-vintage selections are commonly found at lower price points and are more widely available.

Champagne shouldn't be served in flutes.

Without question, the effervescence of Champagne is aesthetically pleasing when serving inside a thin, elongated flute. But sommeliers, wine professionals, and sparkling wine producers all agree that the narrow design of a flute "mutes" the aroma, flavor, and complexity of your bubbly. "A Champagne flute may feel celebratory, but it restricts airflow to the wine, dampening its aroma and flavors," says Maximilian Riedel, CEO and President of wine glass company Riedel. "It actually makes Champagne smell yeasty, and the tall shape allows bubbles to escape directly out of the top of the glass," he adds. A smarter way to serve sparkling wines is in white wine glasses: their rounder, more open shape is better at helping your bubbly express its unique flavor profile and characteristics. There's also more space for your nose and taste buds to experience what you're sipping. 

RELATED: You've Been Serving Champagne All Wrong — Here's How To Do It Right

Advertisement