Last week I introduced the idea of dry and sweet wines in my post. I broke down those pesky numbers, ranging from (00) to (10), that you see in tasting notes and on liquor store price tags (if you live in Canada or the US, that is).
I’d like to continue the thought this week and chat about sparkling wines and how they get rated in terms of dryness. In Canada especially, you’ll find that sparkling wines will also sport the (00) to (10) scale you now know so well. In addition to this scale, sparkling wine also use words as descriptors.
Sparkling wine production differs from still wine production in that there are a number of extra steps required to produce sparkling wine, especially if it is made using the same method they use to produce true Champagne in the Champagne region of France – the méthode classique or méthode champenoise.
The winery where I work produces a number of traditional method sparkling wines. The process fascinates me. It’s like turning a station wagon into a sports car, though that makes it sound like the wine we start with isn’t great, which isn’t the case. Think of a cool station wagon, with a backwards facing seat and wood paneling. First the wine is fermented just as though a still wine were being produced, either in stainless steel tanks or oak barrels. Before it goes into the bottle something called liqueur de tirage is added (a blend of things including yeast nutrients and sugar). This magic potion sparks the second fermentation in the bottle. A temporary crown cap (think beer cap) is usually added to the bottle. Then the bottles are laid to rest for a looooong nap.
Et voila! The magic happens. You see, it is the second fermentation that creates the sparkling part, or the bubbles. As the yeast does its thing with the sugar, alcohol and CO2 are being created. Then the yeast dies off. As it dies, it leaves particles or lees (dead yeast cells) behind. I’m simplifying here but it’s this process that helps add really great flavours and complexity to the wine, typically of the toasty, bread-ey variety. A fancy process called riddling
happens when the wine is slowly moved from a horizontal position to a neck-down, vertical position, being turned along the way to help loosen the sediment. This gets the particles in the bottle into the neck. The neck is then frozen and the disgorgement happens. Disgorgement is the expulsion of the lees from the bottle. The pressure in the bottle releases the frozen sediment, sending it flying from the bottle. Naturally a bit of liquid is lost in the process (check out my sabering video – not the same process at all but a fun way to see liquid fly out of the bottle) so the bottle gets topped up with liqueur d’expedition (wine and sugar). The amount of sugar added will be determined by the producer to suit their fancy and what they deem appropriate for the finished product, dry or sweet. This part of the process is called dosage. The way the wine is rated for sweetness is derived from the RESIDUAL sugar and NOT the dosage.
So, I mentioned words are also used to explain the sugar content of sparklings. These terms are more widely known than the 0-10 scale. As you’ve probably guessed, I prefer words to numbers any day of the week.
An Ultra Brut or Brut Nature wine will be bone dry with 0-2 g/L of residual sugar. Where as an Extra Brut is very dry and will leave us with 0-6g/L. Brut will showcase 0-15 g/L. Brut is considered very dry to dry. Oh, how I love thee, Brut…there’s a bottle in my freezer right now that is soon to be in my belly. I guess I should mention I wrote this blog last Saturday evening. As much as I love to swill bubbles in the morning, I am not.
Extra Sec or Extra Dry will be off-dry (just to complicate things) to medium-dry with 12-20 g/L of residual sugar. Medium dry sparklings will give us Sec or Dry with 17-35 g/L (yes, I know it’s silly to call it dry when the taste is medium dry but it’s just one of those things you have to accept).
Finally we reach the sweet level where using the word sweet as a descriptor is a-ok: Demi-Sec or Semi-Dulce (and many other terms in varying countries) is sweet at a residual sugar count of 33-50 g/L and is what one of my wine books calls luscious. What a great word, luscious.
This very moment I had a delicious sip of a BC 2007 sparkling Brut. It is the first ever to be produced in Canada in the méthode classique style - Sumac Ridge’s Steller’s Jay Brut. It’s a yummy blend of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This is one of my favourite sparkling wines. It contains 12 g/L residual sugar. So, if you consult the handy categories in the paragraph above you’ll see that means this wine could be classified as either Brut or Extra Dry. This overlap allows wineries some flexibility…mostly for marketing purposes. Palates change and shift over time, just as trends and fads do, so this allows a bit of flexibility when the tides change.
There are other ways to produce sparkling wines that have not been covered here, for the sake of not overloading the brain, but the descriptors typically remain the same.
So there you have it. When you combine this post with last week’s you can shop confidently, knowing a bit more about your purchase. Leave me a comment below and let me know if you prefer your wine dry or truly sweet, or perhaps both! I am a huge fan of acidic, dry wines. I look for that Brut word and (00) on my tasting notes and price tags. However, being a true wine lover, I love to experiment and would never say no to numbers above 0 and words other than Brut. Cheers!