How To Read Portuguese Sparkling Wine Labels?
21st September 2023
When you have a bottle of Champagne, Cava or Franciacorta you are expecting sparkling wine made with the traditional method with second fermentation in the bottle.
When you look for a bottle of sparkling wine from Portugal, here called Espumante, it is not so straightforward.
It is a long term discussion that exists, but the truth is that there is no specific word that would distinguish sparkling wines produced with the classic method from sparkling wines produced with any other technique that permits the creation of bubbles in the bottle. So if you want to have a Portuguese sparkling wine made with a specific method, you will have to know how to read the label of the bottle. If you don’t, you might be in danger to end up drinking sparkling wine with artificially added carbon dioxide to create bubbles. And I do not want you to be disappointed with Portuguese sparkling wines.
Despite the fact, that Portugal is a part of EU and there exists a certain level of harmonisation as regards legislation on wine production, Portugal still has 14 wine producing regions and a bunch of traditional designations and mentions that can be used on the wine label and they can differ from region to region.
I will give you hints, to help you understand the information on the bottles of Portuguese wines, that will facilitate your life next time when you go to choose a sparkling wine from Portugal.
1. First of all on the label you can find the words ‘Espumante’ and ‘Espumante de Qualidade’.
This will refer to the minimum required alcohol strength and pressure in the wine. For ‘Espumante de Qualidade’ these measures will be always slightly higher. However, that does not automatically mean that the ‘Espumante’ is lacking of a quality.
2. ‘Espumante’ and ‘Espumante de Qualidade’ can be produced without designation of origin (DOC or IG). If the wine is produced in a specific region and according to regulations stipulated for wine production in this region you will find on the label the name of that region, for example, ‘DOC Távora Varosa’ or ‘IG Beira Atlântico’.
The difference will be in the profile of the wine, if you are looking for sparkling wine with terroir expression, with typicity of a specific region then look for sparkling wines with DOC or IG.
3. The next important aspect is the method of production. As I mentioned before ‘Espumante’ can stand for sparkling wines produced with the traditional method with first (for Pet-Nat) or second fermentation in the bottle, Charmat method with fermentation in a sealed fermentation tank or by adding carbon dioxide to still wine. Nevertheless, the classic method with fermentation in the bottle is considered one of the noblest sparkling wine production techniques and if the wine is produced by this technique a winemaker will want to showcase that on the label. So look for traditional mentions like ‘Fermentação em garrafa’, ‘fermentação em garrafa segundo o método tradicional’, ‘método tradicional’, ‘método clássico’, ‘método tradicional clássico’ or the English version ‘Bottle fermented’. If there is no information on the winemaking technique, then most probably the bubbles were produced using the tank or other method.
4. The greater part of DOC and IG sparkling wines will be produced with the traditional method with second fermentation in the bottle. There are only a few appellations that permit the use of the tank method for DOC category sparkling wines (DOC ‘Do Tejo’, DOC ‘Vinhos Verdes’, DOC ‘Trás-os-Montes’). So if you see DOC on the label, but no information on the winemaking technique, then most probably the wines will be produced by the Charmat method.
5. Sometimes you can find the word combination ‘Espumante Natural’ – this expression is generic, and means that bubbles appeared naturally in the wine as a result of first or second fermentation in the bottle or tank, but never by adding artificial CO2 to wine.
6. Only sparkling wines with indication of DOC/IG and quality sparkling wines (Espumante de Qualidade) without indication of DOC/IG can have on the label special mentions as regards of period of ageing on lees. From here we can conclude, that wine named only ‘Espumante’ without the designation of DOC/IG will probably be a younger wine without prolongated ageing on the lees just because the winemaker can’t place any information on the ageing period on the label. So as a result nobody will know that, so there is no use in producing wines with long periods of ageing in this category. When it comes to specific designation of the ageing period they are as follows:
1. ‘Reserva’ wine was aged between 12 to 24 months.
2. ‘Super Reserva’ or ‘Extra Reserva’, wine was aged between 24 and 36 months.
3. ‘Velha Reserva’ or ‘Grande Reserva’, wine was aged more than 36 months.
7. If Espumante is produced by adding carbon dioxide, this should be stated on the label as ‘Espumante Gaseificado’. You probably won’t find this information on the front label, but it will be written on the back label for sure.
8. One of the essential elements of sparkling wine labels produced by any method, with or without DOC/IG is information on the sweetness level. Here you will find designations and levels of sweetness that are the same in all EU countries:
1. Bruto Natural (Brut Nature) < 3gr/l
2. Extra-Bruto (Extra Brut) 0 a 6 gr/l
3. Bruto (Brut) < 12 gr/l
4. Extra-Seco (Extra Dry) – 12 a 17 gr/l
5. Seco (Dry) 17 a 32 gr/l
6. Meio-Seco (Medium Dry) 32 a 50 gr/l
7. Doce (Sweet) > 50 gr/l
9. On some Quality sparkling wines (Espumante de Qualidade) as with DOC/IG, so without DOC/IG you can also find the word ‘Superior’. This term is reserved for wine with outstanding organoleptic characteristics and higher acquired alcoholic strength by volume at least by 1 % vol. to the legally established minimum limit. So this term adds a little bit more to the quality and complexity of the wine.
10. Besides above mentioned terms and designations, there are a lot of French terms that are used with world renowned meanings:
- Cuvée – first-pressed juice.
- Millésime – sparkling wines from just one year’s harvest.
- Degorgement – the date when ‘yeast lees’ are removed.
- Blanc de Noir (Branco de uvas tintas) – white sparkling wine from red grapes
- Blanc de Blanc (Branco de uvas brancas) – white sparkling wine from white grapes.
It seems a lot of details and that’s true. But now you have some clues on how to decode sparkling wine labels in Portugal and choose your favourite bottle of bubbles! Cheers!
A lawyer and certified specialist in wines (WSET, CMS, IVDP), Ambassador of Wines of Portugal and a member of Association of Sommeliers of Portugal. She co-founded the first and only wine shop-bar in Latvia dedicated solely to Portuguese wines. She is an author of an online course 'Secrets of Wine Appreciation' and runs her own consultancy 'Bottled Assets.