Wine deep dive

Understand sparkling wine like a pro!

Understand sparkling wine like a pro!

Photo by Paola Capelletto

The festive season is approaching. And celebrations pair well with bubbles 🍾!

But, how do you pick a sparkling wine?

Let me show you how the pros read the label of a bottle of bubbly…

How to choose sparkling wine: a guide to reading labels of bubbly.

Choosing one can be a bit of a gamble for many people.

Labels sound obscure to the uninitiated. And that’s a pity as they help make an informed choice on what to drink.

With this in mind, I decided to reverse engineer a sparkling wine bottle label for you, my reader!

So, next time you are buying a sparkling wine, you’ll feel more empowered and in control of what you are going to drink.

You will know which sparkling wine is best for you or for the occasion you are celebrating.

Let’s look at what we are going to learn when looking at the label of a bottle:

  1. What type of wine is it & where is it from?
  2. How was it made & why does that matter?
  3. How sweet or dry will it be?
  4. What grapes is it made of?
  5. What year the grapes grew in & why we care!
  6. And finally a little known pro-tip related to Champagne bottles…

As a little parting gift, at the end of the article you will find a cheat sheet to help you read the labels & pick your sparkling wine when at the shops.

Spoiled for choice

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger

Types of sparkling wine 🍾

When speaking about sparkling wine, normally a single word comes to mind.

And that is Champagne. Or Prosecco, if you live in Italy, as I do.

But there are many types from many different countries:

Champagne, Crémant, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Trento Doc, and Cava to name a few.

But first, what is the difference between Champagne and Prosecco?

Champagne is a French wine. Prosecco is Italian.

But this is just one of the differences.

The grapes used are different and the production method is too. We’ll talk about this more later in the article.

Ok, let’s take a look at provenance

PROVENANCE: where is it from?

🇫🇷 FRANCE

CHAMPAGNE

If a label reads Champagne it must come from the Champagne region, in North-East France.

Champagne is French!

Photo by Anthony Choren

There is no such thing as a Champagne from anywhere else!

Or if you want; Champagne is a sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne…

CRÉMANT

Outside the Champagne region, France produces other sparkling wines; crémants.

Eight regions of France produce crémant: Alsace, Loire, Bourgogne, Savoie, Die, Bordeaux, Limoux and Jura.

🇮🇹 ITALY

PROSECCO

The world-famous sparkling wine from Italy is Prosecco. The Prosecco production area is in the North-Eastern part of Italy.

But Prosecco is not Italy’s only bubbly… Franciacortas and Trentos Doc are other options and could be a more exciting pick!

FRANCIACORTA & TRENTO DOC

Rather unknown outside the country are Franciacortas and Trentos Doc.

There are sparkling wines from Italy!

Photo by Jonathan Bean

Both types of sparkling wine come from their namesake regions, both are the Northern part of the country. And in both cases the label will state if the bottle is a Franciacorta or a Trento DOC.

🇪🇸 SPAIN

CAVA

Cava is Spanish sparkling wine.

It’s often from Penédes area, near Barcelona or from the Ebro River Valley, in Rioja.

🌍 THE REST OF THE WORLD

Many countries make sparkling wines, using a wide range of grapes and with different methods.

Read on and find out more about what this all means and how it changes the wine you’ll be drinking!

METHOD: how was it made?

There are different ways of making sparkling wines. And to confuse matters there are many names to refer to the same thing.

Here we briefly look at each method & then discuss why you should care about that & what difference it makes!

TRADITIONAL METHOD

(AKA Méthode Traditionelle - Méthode Champenoise - Méthode Classique -Metodo Classico)

With the “classic” or traditional method, the second fermentation happened in the bottle.

And if you are wondering; the first fermentation is what turns grape juice into wine. The second fermentation develops the CO2 content of the wine, i.e. its bubbles! Find out more on my article about the traditional method!

Traditional Method bottles on riddling racks!

Photo by Winniepix _Sue Winston

Because of the second fermentation happening in bottle, these wines will undergo also riddling and disgorgement. With the latter process the lees are removed from the bottle.

What are “lees” you ask?

In the wine world “lees” is the fancy name for the dead yeast left behind after fermentation.

They are extremely important in the process of winemaking as they are responsible for the development of those bready, fragrant, buttery notes we all love in great sparkling wines.

Thus the longer the span between bottling and disgorgement, the longer will the lees have spent in the bottle and the more fragrant and “bready” the wine will be!

The traditional method is used to make Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta, Trento DOC and many more sparkling wines worldwide.

So, while Champagne is the famous (and expensive) label, Franciacorta, Trento DOC, Cava and other traditional method wines offer great alternatives at a lower price.

CHARMAT METHOD

(AKA Marinotti Method - Tank Method - Metodo Italiano - Cuve Close)

With the Charmat method, the second fermentation happens in big stainless steel pressure tanks. Then, the wine is filtered. This stage removes the dead lees.

Filtering avoids both riddling and disgorgement. These are costly processes, mainly because they are lengthy and performed on each bottle. They can happen manually or by machine but even in the latter case, the cost of these devices isn’t insignificant.

Charmat method uses big stainless steal tanks!

Photo by Crystal Kwok

Why do we care?

Having the second fermentation in big tanks and filtering the lees in big batches keep the production costs of Charmat method wine way lower than its Traditional Method cousin! It also means that the lees and their yeast infusing properties have less of an effect in the wine. So Charmat method wines tend to have less bready and biscuity notes and be more fruity and fresh.

Charmat method is used to produce Prosecco.

In fact this is one of the main differences between Prosecco and Champagne, together with the region of production and the grape used!

PÉT-NAT

(AKA Ancestral Method, Méthode Rurale, Méthode Ancestrale, Pétillant-Naturel)

In this case, the wine is bottled while the first fermentation is still happening. The first fermentation thus completes in the bottle creating very fine bubbles.

Generally, there is no disgorgement in Pét-Nat production. The dead lees are left in the bottle and this results in cloudy wines where the sediment remains visible.

So why does all this matter…?

As we have seen, no disgorgement keeps the cost of production down.

In the case of PétNat, where the lees are left in the bottle, this has also another side effect. You guessed right… The development of evolved notes and complexity in the final wine you’ll be sipping!

How to choose the best sparkling wine for your taste?

Well the different methods result in different wines!

Wine made with traditional method often have toasty, biscuity, nutty aromas which develop especially with some age. The bubbles are fine and the texture creamy.

If you like your wine elegant and subtle and budget is no concern for you, then a Traditional Method wine can be the right pick!

The charmat method creates larger bubbles and fruity, bright, crisp flavour wines.

They are a great option for an everyday glass to unwind with, especially given their price point!

Finally, the ancestral method results in wines that vary in style. The level of “sparkling-ness” will depend on the amount of pressure created in bottling. Pét-nats can be sparkling, fizzy or have more of a “foam”.

Tasting notes too can vary very much depending on the grapes used and other choices made at the winery.

So, if you choose a Pét-nat you must be ready to experiment and try something surprising and ever-evolving. The experience could please you. Or not…!

So, while Champagne is the famous (and expensive) label, Franciacorta, Trento DOC and Cava and other traditional method wines offer great alternatives at a lower price.

DOSAGE: how sweet or dry is it?

Brut, Semi-brut, Pas-dosé, Extra-brut… What does all that tell you?

Simple. It’s the amount of sugar added to the wine.

Yup, in sparkling wine, sugar is often added to the base wine to balance the acidity of the final product.

Sugar!

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

The sweetness scale from the drier to the sweeter style goes as follows:

  1. Pas-Dosé (aka Zero Dosage, Brut Nature, Dosaggio zero): No sugar is added to the wine.
  2. Extra Brut.
  3. Brut.
  4. Extra Dry (or Extra Sec).
  5. Dry (or Sec).
  6. Demi-Sec: At this point the wine is quite sweet. The sugar content can vary but goes between 35 and 50 grams of sugar per litre!
  7. Doux: This is very sweet stuff!

So, yeah, remember that a “Dry” sparkling wine is actually not that dry. Confusing!

NV vs Vintage: in what year did the grapes grow?

Another common term that appears on sparkling wine labels is “NV” meaning “non-vintage”. This means that the wine is a blend of grapes from the year of bottling and some older ‘reserve’ wine (i.e. wine from previous years).

This is done to achieve a certain consistency in taste and complexity over the years.

In years when the grapes are excellent and blending would be a shame, producers bottle “vintage” wine.

Vintage wine is also referred to as Millésimé wine or Millesimato on Italian labels.

In this case, the label will state the year of harvest.

So why does it matter?

Vintage sparkling wine has a “deeper” and “rounder” character. It’s ageing potential (the time it can spend in the bottle improving) is also much greater and easily reaches decades!

GRAPES: what is in the wine?

A label can tell you which grapes have been used to make the wine, even if not printed on the bottle.

One just needs to know how to read between the lines! Let me show you…

Grapes selected for the wine production massively change the character of the final wine!

Photo by Paul Zoetemeijer

Champagne is made from these grapes

Champagne can be made with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and/or Chardonnay1.

It will generally be made by a blend of these varieties.

Prosecco must be made with Glera grapes

Prosecco must be made with at least 85% of Glera grapes but often the percentage is higher. The remaining 15% or less can be a blend of some selected local grapes2.

Glera is what gives Prosecco its sweet profile with typical aromas that include pear, white flowers and citrus fruit.

Franciacorta grapes blend

This sparkling can be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Blanc.

And since 2019, Erbamat, a local grape variety, has been added to the list of allowed varieties.

Yes, that’s right, the grapes that go into certain types of wine are controlled by law to ensure they stay true to their name.

Trento Doc grapes

Can be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and/or Pinot Meunier.

Blanc de Blanc: what is that?

When a label reads Blanc de Blanc it’s saying that the wine is made only with white grapes.

In practice this means that Champagne Blanc de Blancs are made with Chardonnay.

Blanc de blanc wines are made with white grapes only.

Photo by Lou Stejskal

As for Franciacortas and Trentos, they will be made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Blanc.

Blanc de blancs tend to be more “straightforward” and “elegant”, mineral and fresh. The bouquet of aromas often includes citrus and floral notes.

Blanc de Noirs: what is it?

Blanc de Noirs on the other hand are sparkling wines produced only with black grapes. This often means 100% Pinot Noir. However, Pinot Meunier too is a red berry variety and can technically be used.

As for their style and flavour, Blanc the Noirs tend to be more fruity and “full” wines. Tasting notes here often include apple and honey.

Satén: what is it?

Franciacorta lovers will be acquainted with the word “Satén”. But what is a “Satén” Franciacorta?

Satén comes from the French word for “satin” and it’s used in the wine world to indicate a special category of wines.

First of all, Satén Franciacortas can be made only with Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc (the latter up to 50% maximum). And this makes them also Blanc de blancs 🤓!

Secondly the pressure inside the bottle must be lower than 5 bars (when usually it sits around 6 bars). This practically means finer bubbles and a more elegant and “creamier” profile. A ‘satin’ feel if you will!

Satén Franciacorta has finer bubbles and a satin feel to it.

Photo by Susan Wilkinson

Champagne labels, an extra pro-level tip…

Here is a little lesser known tip: a Champagne label also tells us an extra, important piece of information.

On the back of a Champagne label you will find a two letter acronym.

Mysterious. But very interesting.

This code tells us the grapes provenance and production chain.

NM : Négociant manipulant.

This refers to a Maison that buys grapes, the must or the actual wine from third parties. It then bottles it, sticks their label on and sell it.

In practice this means that you don’t know where your wine is from.

Only who bottled it…

RM : Récoltant manipulant.

This is a Maison that grows its grapes, processes them, makes wine, labels and markets it.

Very interesting acronyms on the back of a Champagne label

Photo curtesy of Champagne Paillette

Here you do know who made the wine you are drinking.

It’s their name on the bottle!

SR : Société de Récoltants.

This is a family run Maison. They produce their own grapes, process them, label and market their wines.

Again, here you do know where the grapes are grown and by whom.

And it’s a family run business!

RC : Récoltant-coopérateur.

This is a cooperative-grower. It markets wine made by its members and sells it under the cooperative label.

Here you roughly know who made the wine you are drinking.

Different makers but all from one established group.

CM : Coopérative de manipulation.

A cooperative that uses its members grapes to produce wine in its premises. It then labels and sells it.

Here you do know who made the wine you are drinking, but don’t know who grew the grapes.

In the wine world many producers do not actually grow grapes themselves…

ND : Négociant distributeur.

Here you have a distributor. They buy bottled wine, they label it and sell it.

Here you don’t know where the grapes are from and you have no idea where the bottle comes from either!

It’s a total mystery…!

MA : Marque d’Acheteur.

This is a brand produced exclusively for a specific client (i.e. a supermarket, celebrity or other).

A CHEAT SHEET TO CHOOSE SPARKLING WINE

I hope you enjoyed this guide on sparkling wine.

You now know how to:

  • read the label of sparkling wines with confidence;
  • make the perfect choice and pick a sparkling wine you will really appreciate;
  • show off your pro-level understanding of the label when a bottle of bubbly is brought out!

But before you go, sign up to my newsletter to access a sparkling wine cheat sheet. It’s designed to be the perfect partner for when you are out shopping for a bottle, to help you decode those obscure wine labels!


  1. The appellation law also allows for the usage of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier. In practice these grapes aren’t often used when producing Champagne. 

  2. Perera, Verdisio, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. 

   

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