Who put the "brute" in champagne?

BUZZ: Hey Marnie, why do they call some wines brutes? It makes sense on a slam-dunk zinfandel, but I've only ever see it on champagnes, not on a big, strong wine.

Marnie: That is a quirk of wine language that many find confusing, Buzz. It has nothing to do with alcoholic strength. Essentially, "Brut" doesn't mean "big and strong." It means "not at all sweet" or "very dry."

Buzz: You mean it's just French slang?

Marnie: Actually, it is one of many regulated terms that indicate the degrees of sweetness in sparkling wines. Some countries regulate "Brut" more tightly than others, but, typically, such wines contain less than 12 grams of sugar per liter, or 1.2 percent by volume.

Buzz: Well, if it means dry, why don't they just say dry? If you ask me, their decision is what's brutish.

Marnie: That's where things get complicated. Since carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of alcoholic fermentation, all wines "sparkle" at some stage. We usually let the gas escape.

But in the 1600s, French vintners in the Champagne region explored ways to capture carbonation in the wines with a double-fermentation system now known as the Champagne method. One result of this process was that the finished wine was extremely dry and acidic. So it became standard practice to dose the wine with cane sugar to offset its sourness.

When sparkling Champagnes first grew popular in 18th-century France and Russia, they contained the equivalent of 2 tsp. of added sugar per glass of wine.

Buzz: Wow, they invented boozy soda pop?

Marnie: Exactly. Taste preferences changed over time, though, and markets began demanding wines that were less sugary. Vintners started labeling their sparkling wines by sweetness, in French of course: Doux meant fully sweet, Démi-Sec meant half-sweet, Sec meant dry, and Extra-Sec meant extra-dry.

Buzz: Then why did they need a brutish name?

Marnie: Well, the trouble was that even the wines labeled Extra-Sec were still faintly sweet. They contained about a third of the original dosage, but still more sugar than we would expect in a dry wine today.

As modernizing tastes continued to get drier, vintners and merchants needed a word that meant drier than extra-dry. Someone coined the perfect term: "Brut." It means savage or untamed in French, and it captured the idea of a wine being unsweetened.

Buzz: I get it: Brutish bullies aren't sweet.

Marnie: Yes, it's a neat story, but the unfortunate irony is that wines labeled "extra dry" are confusingly sweeter than those labeled "brut."

Buzz: Right on that. Wine is complicated enough. But from now on if I want a sparkling dry I'm gonna ignore dry and think Bully Brut.

Marnie Old is a local sommelier and wine author. Her newest book, Wine: A Tasting Course, is an illustrated crash course for the wine curious. Check her out at MarnieOld.com or follow her on Twitter at @MarnieOld. Buzz's musings are interpreted by Gar Joseph.

Continue Reading