Oh champagne labels… just when you think you’re understanding you realize there’s a whole other layer to unpack. While recognizing the terminology for champagne’s dry/sweet scale is vital to making the best selection, truthfully, it can be easily overlooked given that today’s popular styles congregate amongst the driest levels. It may not be until you notice a demi-sec or doux label on an outlying bottle that you really start to question the meaning. So let’s sift out the sugary details of champagne’s final stage of production and how it’s coded on the label.
Champagne Sweetness and Dosage, Explained
The levels of the champagne sweetness scale are determined by the dosage, also called liqueur d’expedition or liqueur de dosage, which is a mixture of sugar and wine that is added to the bottle before its final corking. The amount of sugar in the dosage is pre-determined by the winemaker. A few factors influence this decision but, as the dosage serves to balance the wine, acidity levels are a prime consideration. A house’s style and their typically released cuvèes also play a role.
Dosage levels span from no added sugar to extremely sweet. The less sugar present in the champagne the drier we say the wine is. Even the styles breaching the sweet side of the spectrum will use terminology that references dryness (ie. sec) but don’t be misled. Think of “dry” as the middle point from which there are levels above with less sugar, and below with more.
The level of dryness indicated on a champagne label relates to how much sugar is added to the wine during dosage. While you may see some of these terms used on labels of sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region, it’s important to note that they may not hold the same technical meaning. There are seven levels of sweetness recognized in Champagne:
|Indication (label term)||g/L of Sugar||Quality of Taste|
|Brut Nature (Brut Zero)||0-3||Bone dry|
|Extra Brut||0-6||Very Dry|
|Extra Dry/Sec||12-17||Detectable Sweetness|
In the early days of champagne history, the fashionable drinking style was on the sweeter side. The contemporary palate favors quite the opposite. The top three driest styles are the most popular, with zero dosage examples making a trendy splash on the market — particularly with the rise of the grower-champagne movement from which many brut nature hail.
As you take a look at this chart, remember that the standard champagne bottle size is 750 ml and these dosage measurements are given in g/L. There will actually be less grams of sugar per bottle than what is demonstrated in the table. If you’re curious about how this breaks down to a standard 5 oz glass, the folks at Wine Folly offer a great infographic detailing the matter in this article.
An Extra Note on Extra Dry
This one’s confusing, there’s no way around it. Champagne falling under the extra dry distinction is actually sweeter than the next driest, brut. The easiest way to commit it to memory is to think of extra dry as the fulcrum of the scale: the median level (the fourth out of seven) between the sweetest and driest styles. Anything drier, with less sugar, will have brut in its indication. In terms of flavor quality, the sugar content in brut is still undetectable whereas in extra dry there is noticeable sweetness.
Brut champagne is the most common of all the levels on the market because it is a very balanced style—a high enough dosage to soften the acid, but not so high as to impart sweetness. So another easy way of remembering the difference between brut and extra dry is just by recounting that fact as you browse the champagne section. Very quickly you’ll notice rows of brut labels and most likely not an extra dry in sight.
How to Choose?
Champagne is characterized as a high acid style of wine. This has to do with climate, tradition and method of production. The dosage aims to harmonize acidity levels, so while it may be tempting to write-off the styles that host more sugar, remember that it’s all about balance and your particular taste.
Generally speaking, the drier the style the more pronounced the acid will be. The sweeter the style the more weight and texture the wine will have. Extra brut might be said to have sharp or driven acid, whereas brut nature (no dosage) may be described in terms suggesting a more austere quality of acid such as laser or linear. Brut styles typically offer the most balanced dosage for those still wanting a savory champagne (ie. without noticeable sweetness). For folks who love champagne but really prefer softer mouthfeel and don’t mind some sweet with their bubbles, extra dry or sec might be the key. Demi-sec and doux might be profoundly sweet and cloying for some when sipped without food, but perfect when offered with the right pairings. There’s a place for each level in the champagne experience but it takes experimentation and presenting the wine in the right context for your tastebuds.
Sweet Champagne, Bomb or Bust?
Too often are sweet champagnes given the cold shoulder! These styles may seem intense or over-the-top, but when served at certain points of the meal and with specific pairings, they truly can offer a transcendent drinking experience.
Pairing takes into consideration the elements of taste present in both the food and the wine and seeks to create balanced unions. Two conventional methods of pairing are by similarity and contrast. For sweet champagne and other sweet wines this largely depends on the salt levels in the food. If you’re generating pairings for a group of people, make sure to have food options that span the sweet-savory spectrum. You want the same wine to be enjoyable to guests who may be pairing it differently.
A complementary pairing for sweet champagne and dessert wine is, aptly, with a dessert course. Sugar on sugar may seem bonkers but in actuality, sweet matched with sweet will diminish the sensation in both the food and the wine and bring out the flavors instead. For sweet champagne, think of honing in on desserts with delicate fruit and floral aromas, or potentially brown butter or caramel notes if the wine was treated with some oxidation.
The real magic of sweet champagne pairing though, in our humble opinion, lies in pairings of contrast — we’re talking anything with salt. Think cheeses such as parmigiano, feta or roquefort (for a little funk, too) which can be served as a first or final course, or fried items such as chicken, squash blossoms and fish ‘n chips, whose fat content also benefits from champagne’s acidity. Sweet champagne also offers a killer solution to the problem of wine pairing for spicy foods. Wine and heat are notoriously tricky because wine’s acidity amplifies spice and can, in turn, mute flavor. Wines with higher sugar not only maintain the intended spice level but can draw out more nuanced flavors in the dish.
Have we piqued your curiosity about sweet champagne? We hope so! If you’re feeling motivated to test out some of these pairings consider the following bottles:
Piper Heidsieck Extra Dry
Laurent Perrier “Harmony” Demi-Sec
Pol Roger “Rich” Demi-Sec
Möet & Chandon “Nectar Impérial” Demi-Sec