It might be more helpful if Champagne and sparkling wine bottles came labeled with terms like “cloyingly sweet for a Scotch drinker” or “dry as a line of Conga-dancing skeletons” (that one complete with imagery). But since bubbly bottles generally tend toward a classier look, we’re guessing they’re going to stick to the regular, if slightly confusing, sweetness level terminology. By which we mean brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra sec (dry), sec (dry), demi-sec (dry), doux.
Actually, no, we mean brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra seco (dry), seco (dry), semi-sec (dry), dolce. Actually, wait, no, we mean brut, extra dry, dry. Wait, there’s also the German terminology: extra herb, herb, extra trocken—OK, you know what? Let’s just step back for a second. Seriously, we just wanted a glass of nicely chilled, perfectly poured, ideally residual-sugared sparkling wine. And we all failed honors German.
Unfortunately, when you look up these terms, you’ll find people “clarifying” what extra-sec means by saying “dry to off-dry.” It’s literal translation is actually “extra dry.” But that means a bit sweeter. Great. What?
Don’t worry. All these terms, English and otherwise, are really just points on a scale of residual sugar left over after the nuanced but carefully controlled process of making sparkling wine. And they vary between types of wine, based sometimes on language and based sometimes on the actual scale of sweetness in a particular sparkling (notice how Prosecco only has brut, extra dry, and dry?)
OK, onto blessed clarification! And it does get pretty blessed. For instance, since they are all made in the traditional méthode Champenoise—where sugar levels are controlled by an addition of sugar called the “dosage”—you can line up the French, German, and Spanish terms (as we’ll do below, adding the English where applicable). And when you do, voila! You’ll see they’re all simply expressing the same amount of permissible residual sugar in different languages. And some confusing/backwards terminology, which we’ll address as we go.
Brut Nature/Brut Nature/NaturHerb: 0 – 3 grams/liter
Meaning this stuff is bone dry. As dry as a sparkling can get without being overpowered by acidity. Sugar, if any, is only added to mitigate acidity. Otherwise it’s as dry as Anna Wintour’s sense of humor. Assuming she has one.
Extra Brut/Extra Brut/Extra Herb: 0 – 6 grams/liter
Yes, this would seem like it was more “brut” than brut nature, since it’s “extra.” But don’t let that extra fool you: this one’s slightly (but only slightly) less dry than brut nature.
Brut/Brut/Herb: 0 – 12 grams/liter
You’ll probably see this one a lot more often. The sugar here basically works to maintain balance, not sweeten the wine. Still what you would consider dry, especially since it can technically have anywhere from no sugar to 12 grams. Also maybe the best choice for a sparkling pairing option or casual sipper. Then again, when do we casually sip bubbly? (Not often enough.)
Extra Dry/Extra Sec/Extra Seco/Extra Trocken: 12 – 17 grams/liter
Here’s the second case of confusing terminology. Sec, seco, and herb basically all mean “dry.” But in English we tend to use the term “dry” to denote zero to very little sweetness. And this is where the sweetness uptick begins. Again, just ignore that itty bitty paradox. Not intensely sweet, but you might get some nice, more pronounced fruit character.
Dry/Sec/Seco/Trocken: 17 – 32 grams/liter
These terms literally mean “dry dry dry,” which in the backwards world of sparkling sweetness levels actually means “sweeter, sweeter, sweeter.” Not that we’re in the candy aisle just yet. There’s more residual sugar, sure, about 1 gram of sugar (or ¼ of a teaspoon) per ounce of sparkling. Meaning a 4-ounce pour gets you 1 teaspoon of sugar. Not as sweet as it sounds.
Demi-Sec/Semi Seco/Halbtrocken: 32 – 50 grams/liter
Again, it’s almost good to forget the literal translation of the terminology and just memorize what it means in terms of sugar. Well-made demi-secs can actually be very well balanced, with a noticeable sweetness that doesn’t come out as “insanely sugary’ so much as fruity (apricots, lychee, peach, e.g.) balanced with toast and citrus notes (and any other notes) you might find in the bubbly.
Doux/Dolce/Mild: 50 grams+/liter
Yeah, the 50 grams+ thing basically makes it seem like it’s a no-holds-barred sweetness party. In a way, it kind of is. Think about it this way: there are 39 grams of sugar in a can of Coke. Imagine all of that sugar, plus 11 more grams, in a bottle of Champagne. This is as dessert as sparkling gets.
OK, so what about Prosecco? They’re basically making it easy for us, doing the middle of the road thing, avoiding extremes like brut nature and doux. The brut, extra dry, and dry Prosecco rules all line up with the same terms and residual sugar levels above. That doesn’t mean flavors will line up, since, as we’ve learned, Prosecco isn’t made in the méthode Champenoise and more often than not doesn’t see any oak. That means a bit more forward fruit, which might emphasize the sugar, making a dry Prosecco (which is actually the sweetest) taste a bit sweeter than a dry Champagne that’s also had its flavors influenced by lees and oak.
Of course, the best way to learn is with your palate. But long story short, if you like dry sparkling wine, stay on the brut side. If you like your sparkling wine a bit sweeter, go dry (or sec, seco, trocken). You get the idea. Anyone for some bubbly?