As soon as you think you’ve gotten a handle on wine vocabulary then sparkling wine shows up with a language all its own. And within the world of sparkling —not only heavy hitters like Champagne, Prosecco, and Cava, but lesser-known wines like Sekt from Germany and Austria and Crémant from other parts of France — wines can be classified not only by their origin and how they were produced, but by their age, their grape variety, and even their sweetness. While there are naming idiosyncrasies depending on where the wines are from, Champagne’s classification system has been adopted by many other regions around the world, including sparkling wine makers in California such as J Vineyards & Winery, which is known for extraordinary sparkling and varietal wines located in the iconic Russian River Valley.
Getting familiar with these terms will help you make sure you’re picking the wine you want — to go with whatever you’re eating —every single time.
Read on for a quick crash course in what each sparkling classification means, and the best, most dynamic pairings for each.
Sweetness: Extra Brut to Demi-Sec
Residual sugar (a.k.a. RS) refers to the natural grape sugars left in wine after fermentation. Residual sugar not only shapes the taste of a wine, but the texture on the palate, too. Wines without any residual sugar will feel sharper and more precise. These are the sorts of wines you want to drink with salty oysters or tangy goat cheese, whereas wines with higher RS are a bit weightier and fuller and can go with more substantial dishes like lobster dipped in butter or triple crème cheeses.
Residual sugar is measured in grams per liter (g/L); wines are assigned to different categories, from extra brut (very dry) to demi-sec (quite sweet), based on how many grams of RS are present in the final wine. Because acidity balances out sweetness, most wines aren’t perceptibly sweet unless their RS exceeds 30 g/L.
Getting a handle on RS levels is one factor that can help point to the ideal food pairing that will complement, rather than clash, with your wine. Here are three styles to know:
Aside from brut nature (which has no residual sugar whatsoever), extra brut sparkling wines are some of the driest you can buy. During fermentation, the yeast consumes almost all the sugar, leaving these wines super crisp and focused, with just 0 to 6 g/L of residual sugar.
One pairing to avoid? Anything sweet. Though it might seem sensible to match a sweet dessert with a drier wine for balance, don’t. The sugar in your crème brûlée, say, will make the wine taste wildly tart.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery Cuvée XB Extra Brut, a 50/50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with almond blossom aromas and lemon and lime zest on the palate.
Pairing: Extra brut wines have vibrant acidity that make them a perfect match for delicate flavors like raw seafood and oysters.
Brut is the most common type of sparkling wine in the world — if you grab a glass of bubbly at a party, odds are it’s a brut. Brut bottlings can have up to 12 g/L of residual sugar but will taste completely dry to most palates, the sugar giving it a little weight rather than sweetness.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery Cuvée 20 Brut, also Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, offering a dance of bubbles across the palate with notes of backed apple and lemon bar, but a bit fuller with a creamy texture matched by refreshing citrus and apple flavors.
Pairing: While bruts can go with just about anything, these wines really love salty foods — everything from oysters to fried chicken to cheddar popcorn.
Demi-sec sparkling wines are noticeably sweet, with 32 to 50 g/L of residual sugar. But for the most part, they aren’t cloying, staying fresh thanks to both acidity and the wine’s lively bubbles. For this reason, these wines have surprising versatility with food, meaning they’ll go as well with a rich cheese plate, walking on the line of sweet and salty, as they will with strawberry shortcake with plenty of whipped cream.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery Demi-Sec, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, has juicy fruit notes of ripe pear, sweet clementines, and raspberries.
Pairing: Traditionally, demi-sec is a companion to desserts, especially standing out with fruit tarts or creamy mousse, but it’s worth exploring the sweet-and-savory combinations, pairing these wines with dishes like scallops cooked in butter or burrata and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.
Grape Varieties: Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs
Many sparkling wines — be they white or rosé — are blends of red and white grapes. But blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs, styles devised in Champagne, are both white wines made exclusively from white or red grapes, respectively. Champagne traditionally made only white wines, which meant that making this distinction was useful for drinkers.
Blanc de Blancs
Generally speaking, blanc de blancs (“white from white”) wines, often made entirely from Chardonnay (though Pinot Gris and other Champagne grapes are sometimes used), tend to be lighter and drier than blanc de noirs.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery’s inaugural 2014 Blanc de Blancs, made entirely from Russian River Valley Chardonnay. This stunning sparkling opens with notes of pear, green apple, and white peaches with hints of sea spray and slate.
Pairing: The bright, juicy palate found in blanc de blancs is excellently balanced by the salt and earthiness of seafoods like oysters and rich, buttery crab.
Blanc de Noirs
Similarly, Blanc de Noirs translates to “white from black,” which refers to the red grapes used, primarily Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. By pressing these red grapes very gently, and removing the skins expeditiously, the wine retains its white color. These wines tend to have a nice roundness and are richer and fruitier than blanc de blancs.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery 2016 Blanc de Noir, made only from Pinot Noir, which gives it a glint of rose-gold coloring. This sparkling wine has a rich earthiness that’s matched by berried fruit.
Pairing: Blanc de noirs pair well with the earthy mushrooms and roasted chicken or duck.
Aging: Late Disgorged & Vintage
Many sparkling wines are non-vintage, which means the grapes used to make the wine weren’t all from a single harvest. Some winemakers, however, will bottle and date wines that they think really speak of that year in the vineyard, acknowledging that every harvest is different. These dates make it possible for wine buyers and drinkers to know how long the wine’s been around. Giving a sparkling wine time to mature in-bottle will unveil an entirely new side of the wine.
If you see “R.D.” on a label, that’s short for récemment dégorgé, or “late disgorged.” Disgorgement is the process by which dead yeast cells, or the lees, are removed from the bottle after the second fermentation. The bottles are often then topped with a dosage (a small amount of wine mixed with sugar) to keep the bubbles fresh. A late-disgorged sparkler spends more time on its lees, yielding flavors that are more complex and unique; they may even taste fresher than bottles of the same vintage that were disgorged earlier.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery 2011 Late Disgorged Brut, which spends seven years on its lees in bottle, as opposed to the winery’s Brut, which only ages for 30 months. This time spent on its lees lends to enticing aromas of sourdough, citrus zest, and notes of lemon curd and candied ginger.
Pairing: Pair this crisp and complex sparkling with the perfect, elevated tasting complement — Tsar Nicoulai caviar. This pairing allows the buttery, creamy characteristics of the caviar to shine.
Vintage sparkling wines give a snapshot of a single vintage. Each vintage tells a new story about the vineyard, the weather, even the winemaker’s tastes and decisions. While most sparkling wine blends juice from more than one harvest and is aged for a few months before hitting the wine-shop shelves, vintage sparkling wine is often held at the winery a bit longer — years or even decades — prior to being sold.
One to try: J Vineyards & Winery 2013 Vintage Brut, which immortalizes that year’s near-perfect, warm, and dry growing season. The wine has notes of apple, Meyer lemon, and lingering hints of toasted almond and pie crust.
Pairing: Vintage wines commemorate an exceptional harvest, which means that the best way to pair them just might be with a really special occasion — maybe an anniversary that coincides with the year of the vintage, or maybe just a moment so outstanding, you’d like to freeze it in time, too.
This article is sponsored by J Vineyards and Winery.