Champagne and sparkling wine come in varying levels of sweetness. Brut means "dry, raw, unrefined" in French, and specifies a style of champagne that is very low in sugar. This results in champagne that is not particularly sweet and tastes dry on the palate.
Champagne used to be made with considerable amounts of additional sugar added after the second fermentation to suit the day's sweet tooth. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that Epernay-based producer Perrier-Jouët decided to craft champagne without additional sugar. However, this new dry style was not quick to catch on given the crisp, tongue drying character. Another three decades went by before Reim's producer, Pommery, gave the brut-style of champagne a try with greater consumer success.
Today champagne is made in a full spectrum of styles from super sweet to incredibly dry, labeled "extra brut," "brut," "sec," and so on. Decipher your sparkling wine label using the definitions below, in order from driest to sweetest.
6 Champagne Styles to Know
- Extra Brut: Extra brut champagne is made with extremely low levels of sugar, resulting in a bone-dry style with only 0-6 grams of sugar per liter (.6 percent sugar).
- Brut: The brut style of champagne tastes quite dry on the palate with sugar levels running less than 15 grams per liter range (1.5 percent sugar).
- Extra Dry: While the name seems to communicate that this style of champagne would taste drier than brut champagne, this is not typically the case. Extra dry is usually slightly sweeter than brut, with sugar levels falling between 12 to 20 grams of sugar per liter (1.2 to 2 percent sugar).
- Sec: French for "dry" or "lean," the sec style of champagne actually has a slightly sweet taste with sugar in the 17 to 35 gram per liter range (1.7 to 3.5 percent sugar).
- Demi-Sec: Literally "half-dry" or semi-sweet in nature, demi-sec champagne styles contain 33 to 50 grams of sugar per liter (3.3 to 5 percent sugar) and taste moderately sweet.
- Doux: "Sweet" in French, this champagne style is quite sweet (and quite rare), boasting a whopping 50 grams or more sugar per liter (over 5 percent sugar). With sugar levels higher than a favorite can of soda, doux qualifies as a dessert wine.
Brut Champagne Flavor and Food Pairing
Brut champagne is dry on the palate, yet the aromas and flavors lean towards apple, pear, and citrus, and can hint at peach and apricot in warmer vintages. Classic fresh-baked bread aromas, creamy textures, and fuller-bodied styles are the direct influence of the spent yeast used in the second fermentation.
Bringing exceptional food-pairing versatility to the table, brut champagne partners up with everything from traditional caviar to butter-drenched seafood delights and salty flavored fare. The high acidity and zippy carbonation cut through oils and fats with delicious palate precision, making everything from fried potatoes and savory quiche to oysters Rockefeller and smoked salmon an absolute treat.
Brut sparkling wine is also commonly used in champagne cocktails, since the other ingredients will add sweetness, playing against the dryness of the brut nicely.
Price of Brut Champagne and Sparkling Wine
Keep in mind that everything made outside of France is considered sparkling wine, not champagne. Most wine-producing countries make a sparkling wine, some with greater success than others.
Spain: Some of the best bets for budget-friendly brut sparkling wine comes from Spain in the form of cava (typically $10-20 a bottle).
United States: Sparkling wine producers like Mumm Napa, Chandon, Roederer Estate, and Gloria Ferrer all carry bottles of brut starting at the $20 mark and move steadily up from there.
Elsewhere in France: Whenever sparkling wine is made in France outside of Champagne it is called cremant. For instance, cremant d'Alsace is simply a bubbly from the French region of Alsace. Prices run the gamut from $18 for a basic bottle of brut to hundreds of dollars for the best brands.
Champagne: Authentic French champagne tends to be the most expensive of the sparkling wines. With some entry-level bottles starting at $30 for a non-vintage option, chardonnay-dominant champagne typically offers crisp apple and pear flavors, often with a yeasty, fresh-baked bread character. A mid-level bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label will set you back $40-50.
The factors that influence the final price of a brut champagne are where the grapes were grown (high end vs. humble vineyards), which estate made the wine, if the champagne grapes are all from a single vintage (more expensive) or multiple vintages (most common), and what kind of reputation precedes the bottle (Dom Perignon, Cristal, Krug, Perrier-Jouët and the like fetch a high price).
How Brut Champagne Is Made
Technically, champagne is only champagne when it's made in Champagne, France, using only chardonnay, pinot noir, or pinot meunier grapes. It tends to be a blend of grapes from different vineyards and sometimes a blend of vintages. An average of 45 different still wines come together to make a final bottled blend of champagne. Each champagne house aims for a unique, albeit consistent "house style" year in and year out. The grapes are harvested, fermented, and then aged a bit before bottling much like non-sparkling wine. To get the bubbles, champagne must go through a second fermentation process in the bottle.
This second fermentation is jump-started by the addition of sugar and yeast (called the liqueur de tirage) to the bottles of blended still wine. Once the spent yeast has run its course, it begins to collect as sediment. This yeast sediment is called the lees and champagne that rests on the sediment, called sur lies, gains a classic yeasty, fresh-baked bread character. When it's time to remove the spent yeast, the bottles are turned upside-down at an angle so that the sediment collects in the bottleneck and can be removed prior to corking.
It's at this point that the champagne's sugar levels are determined and adjusted. If a producer would like to make brut champagne or extra brut champagne, then typically nothing will be added. If the goal is sweeter-styled champagne, then dosage is added. The dosage is essentially a blend of base wine with sugar that can be more concentrated or less concentrated depending on the level of sweetness that's desired.
Recommended Brut Champagne Producers to Try
- Pol Roger
- Charles Heidsieck
- Veuve Clicquot
- Louis Roederer
- Nicolas Feuillatte
- Moet & Chandon
- Dom Perignon