As any fan of bubbly will tell you, Champagne goes with just about everything, from fried chicken and creamy pasta dishes to decadent caviar and oysters. While it's always a special occasion when you pop the cork, you don't necessarily have to save that lovely bottle for an anniversary or birthday. Any aperitif hour will do! And sweet Champagne? When should you indulge in that type of sparkler?
Before you dismiss it as a quaff best left to candy fiends, know this: Sweet Champagne is also delicious and well worth trying. Heather Johnston, the owner of Brooklyn wine shop Good Wine, says that those in-the-know reach for sweet Champagne for the same reasons they’d drink any other kind of bubbles. "It's celebratory,” she says. "I like to introduce people to sweet Champagne around the holidays because it’s so festive and also off the beaten track."
A Wine Like No Other
Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it hails from the Champagne region of France, and it’s made from chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grape varietals. "Champagne is so very specific, with lots of rules," says Johnston. What's more, Champagne also ranges from dry to sweet, with the sugar dosage governing its category. The driest Champagne on one end of the spectrum is called brut nature (or zero dosage or brut zero) with under three grams of residual sugar for each liter. The more familiar dry styles are called extra brut and brut, followed by extra-sec (or extra dry), sec (or dry), demi-sec, and doux, the sweetest of all, which has 50 grams of residual sugar or more per liter. No guessing is necessary: You'll find the Champagne's sweetness level spelled out right on the bottle.
What determine's Champagne's sweetness? Champagne is produced using the méthode traditionnelle or traditional method, undergoing two fermentations. Yeast is added to bottles during the second round, converting sugar from the fruit juice into alcohol. Carbon dioxide is produced et voilà: Bubbles! Once the dead yeast is disgorged, a liquid called liqueur d'expédition or expedition liqueur tops off the bottle before it's resealed to help preserve it. It's this liquid, which may contain white wine and sometimes sugar and/or brandy that dictates whether the wine will be dry or sweet. Aging also plays a part.
Champagne may be the pinnacle, but there are plenty of other fizzy wines well worth drinking. To name a few: crémant, blanquette, and pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, all French sparklers. In Spain, cava brings the bubbles. In Italy, sparkling wines include prosecco, Lambrusco, Franciacorta, and Asti Spumante. Some are made using the traditional method and they also go the gamut, with terms in other languages to indicate their dryness or sweetness.
Champagne's Sweet Beginnings
Royals and rulers, from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte, had a weakness for Champagne. But the bubbly of the 18th and 19th centuries was sweeter than today's Champagne. And among the sweetest was the Champagne favored by Tsar Alexander II and the Russian royal family, initially supplied by Madame Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot. Madame Clicquot also kept the English in the effervescent stuff, but the Brits had a taste for dry Champagne, and over the decades, brut styles of Champagne have become more of the gold standard.
Once all the rage, Champagne doux is now harder to come by. Medium-sweet demi-secs, however, are readily accessible and go with a wide range of flavor profiles.
Sweet Bubbles with Sweet or Salty Flavors
"When I think of demi-secs, I think of how to do them with a great dessert, particularly the Champagnes with fruit," says Johnston. The wine's weight also comes into play when matching it with foods. "Champagne is light and delicate, so spicy nuts would be a great pairing. Or a pear, blue cheese, and walnut salad, because of the salty-sweet contrast. It's really beautiful, a complete flavor experience, with the lightness of the salad."
When deciding which ones to try, she suggests choosing a demi-sec from the classic Champagne houses. Laurent-Perrier Demi-Sec Harmony, for example ($41.99, wine.com) with aromas of dried fruit and hazelnuts, pairs well with desserts like pastries. Crisp, with aromas of peach honeysuckle and caramel, Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec ($64.99, drizly.com) takes on glazed ham and chocolate desserts. Velvety, and slightly less sweet, Moët & Chandon Nectar Impérial complements fresh fruit desserts ($59.99, drizly.com). Piper-Heidsieck Sublime Demi-Sec ($45.99, totalwine.com) is juicy, with lively acidity, just right for fish dishes. Billecart-Salmom, Demi-Sec ($52.99, astorwines.com) is floral, with a creamy mouthfeel—a brilliant foil for foie gras and pork dishes. And Jean Vesselle Demi-Sec Rosé Cuvée Friandise ($39.99, thewineoutlet.com) pleases pink wine fans with its nose of cherry pie, it's a match for holiday dinner.
Like its dry cohorts, sweet Champagne is best served in the appropriate glassware, be it retro-stye coupe glasses, or their elegant counterparts: Champagne flutes. Johnston is particularly fond of the latter, and for good reason."You want to maintain the bubbles—glasses are theoretically about that," she says. "When you are spending a lot of money on Champagne, you want to hold on to its integrity as much as possible."