For our very small Thanksgiving, I volunteered to bring the dessert wine.
It’s not that I don’t like the classic Sauternes, Vendange Tardive and Trockenbeerenauslese that usually graces our dessert table, but this year, I wanted to try something different—a demi-sec Champagne. Frankly, I thought it would go beautifully with the apple pie I was bringing.
Sweet wines such as NV Möet & Chandon “Nectar Impérial” Demi-Sec or NV Veuve Cliquot Demi Sec have a special place in the Champagne world. These aren’t wines you open as an aperitif or even with seafood. These are wines reserved for the end of the meal, to be served with a fruit tart or strong cheese. These are wines that finish your meal in a very special way.
The wine I chose, a NV Gruet Demi-Sec ($15), was new to me. This bottle, 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir, hails from the sparkling winemaker Gruet based in New Mexico. Founded in 1984 by Champagne maker Gilbert Gruet, the winery is known for some of the highest elevation estate vineyards in the U.S. Growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they make both still wines and bubblies via méthode traditionnelle from grapes grown on estate vineyards in New Mexico and Washington, as well as fruit sourced from California and elsewhere.
Gruet made its first wines in 1989 and by the mid-2000s had gained national recognition as a producer of good quality, well-priced domestic sparklers—with the added novelty of the New Mexico pedigree. Many wine drinkers in the U.S. can recall their first pleasant encounter with the label.
The turkey finished, it was time for dessert. I popped and poured my glass, and with a forkful of apple pie at the ready, I took that first sip. Then I took another.
The wine wasn’t sweet.
It was a lovely sparkling wine with a hint of sweetness which I quite like, but where was the residual sugar, set off by the zing of acid? Where was the sweetness that made it a demi-sec?
The French, you know, have rules about these things.
To make Champagne, producers introduce sugar via a dosage. How much sugar usually depends on the vintage, the grapes, the winemaker’s hand and even the market. Champagnes can range from bone dry to sticky sweet.
Champagnes (by French law) are labeled with identifiers that reveal how many grams per liter of residual sugar the wine contains. From driest to sweetest, the levels go from the driest, Brut Nature, to Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry and Dry, then to the sweeter Demi-Sec and Doux–each with their own range for residual sugar.
Residual sugar is the amount of sugar in the wine that either comes from the grape (as with a late harvest wine) or from the dosage. Demi-sec Champagnes have 32 to 50 grams per liter of residual sugar, which is a lot, like soda-pop sweet. This wine, though quite good, was definitely not that.
The spec sheet for the Gruet Demi-Sec lists the residual sugar at 3.5 grams/liter—a Brut by French standards. But the rest of the Gruet sparkling wines tend to be bone dry. As they already have a Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir, and Brut with even less residual sugar, the idea might have been to set this slightly sweeter wine aside by calling it “demi-sec.” If it’s a strategy, it has worked, as this particular wine has become one of the brand’s most popular—a “gateway drug,” as one of their distributors called it, for people looking to move from slightly sweeter proseccos to drier sparklers.
Even with my forkful of mismatched pie, I appreciated the overall chutzpah. It took a lot of gumption for a French Champagne-making family to expand to New Mexico. It’s taken heart and courage to bring these wines to a wide market—and I am among their fans. So, for now, we can perhaps forgive them for taking some license with their labeling, and enjoy the wine for what it actually is.