How do I know if a sparkling wine is fruit-forward vs. yeasty?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

How do I know if a sparkling wine is fruit-forward vs. yeasty?

—Christopher, San Francisco

Dear Christopher,

I checked in with Wine Spectator senior editor Alison Napjus, our lead taster for the wines of Champagne, to help answer your question. She says that yeasty notes in sparkling wine are either the result of a bubbly that has undergone malolactic conversion (aka “malo” or “ML”) and/or autolysis (the breaking down of dead yeast cells) and lees aging. “I would generalize and say that longer lees contact and cellar aging will potentially result in Champagnes with heightened yeasty aromas,” she says.

“Some chefs de cave completely eschew malo, for either some or all of their cuvées, usually citing the fact that the lack of malo gives the wine greater aging capability,” Napjus adds. “But most utilize malo to some extent: It's relatively common in Champagne to balance the high acidity levels. To me, when it's more pronounced/noticeable in a wine, it results in bread or pastry dough aromas and flavors, and sometimes I notice a yogurt-like aroma.”

Unfortunately, techniques like malolactic conversion and lees aging usually aren’t noted on a wine label. One possible hack would be if you could determine how long a sparkling wine was aging on its lees, by determining both when the wine was initially bottled as well as when it was disgorged—vintage Champagnes require at least three years of aging before being disgorged, so you could potentially surmise that wines with more than three years between initial bottling and disgorgement might be more likely to have a yeasty profile.

But your chances of determining all of that information by looking at a wine list or a retail shelf are pretty slim. You can always check our online wine ratings database at WineSpectator.com to see if we’ve published a tasting note, or just tell your retail clerk or sommelier the style of sparkling wine you’re looking for and ask them to point you in the right direction.

—Dr. Vinny

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