Scan the sparkling wine list at any restaurant and you’ll see a few familiar names: Champagne, Prosecco, Cava. But you probably won’t find one of Europe’s lesser known, food-friendly, and affordably-priced wines: Sekt, a sparkling wine from Germany and Austria.
Though it may not be there yet, Sekt should be one of the first wines that comes to mind when you’re planning any cheers-worthy activity. As the weather warms up, Sekt—with its enormous range of styles and price points—is versatile enough to suit everything from a birthday brunch to a wedding toast. While Sekt hasn’t been widely exported outside Germany and Austria in the past, it’s increasingly making its way to wine shops around the world, and its under-the-radar profile means that hype hasn’t yet inflated its price.
What is Sekt?
Sekt, in German, just means “sparkling wine.” The word “Sekt” describes not one style of sparkling wine but a range, from cut-rate grocery store bubbly to complex wines rivaling Champagne. While Sekt always comes from Germany or Austria, it can be made from almost any grape, and in white, red, or rosé style, with ABV typically between 10% and 13%.
With so much variation, how do you know what to expect when you open a bottle? Price can offer a clue. The cost of the wine—and therefore the winemaker’s budget—plays a big role in Sekt’s quality and taste. A higher budget means higher quality grapes and more complex, time-consuming winemaking techniques. Fortunately, well-made Sekt can be found for considerably less than you’d pay for better-known sparklers of similar quality, and even award-winning bottles are often sold in the $15 to 30 range. (Unlike with other sparkling wines, the barrier to entry isn’t the price, but finding it without flying across the Atlantic. Most large wine shops will carry Sekt, but if yours doesn’t, you can ask them to special order it or buy it from an online retailer.)
The making of Sekt
All Sekt starts out as a still, low-alcohol wine. Winemakers then add sugar and yeast, and the wine undergoes a second fermentation in a pressurized environment, forcing carbon dioxide bubbles and a bit of extra alcohol into the wine. Lower-end Sekt usually undergoes its second fermentation in large tanks, while higher-quality Sekt is often bottle-fermented like Champagne. (Carbon dioxide injection—the method used to make soda and the cheapest sparkling wines—can’t be used to make Sekt.) Budget Sekt—usually under $15, and most of it destined for domestic consumption in Germany and Austria—is released right away, while the best Sekt spends months aging on its leftover dead yeast, called lees, which adds flavor notes of toast, nuts, and buttermilk.
Price also influences which grapes are used and where those grapes are grown. Cheap Sekt—the kind you’d be comfortable mixing into a mimosa—is simple and fruity, and can be made from grapes sourced outside Germany and Austria, often international grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in bulk winegrowing regions of France, Spain, or Italy. High-quality Sekt—usually over $15, but rarely over $60—is grown in premium winegrowing areas like Austria’s Burgenland or Germany’s Mosel, where cool climates help grapes retain their acidity. These styles of Sekt are often made from grapes native to Germany and Austria, each with their own distinctive flavors. Piercingly tart Riesling, for example, contributes green apple, stone fruit and citrus notes to Sekt, while fragrant Gewurztraminer adds flavors of lychee and spice. Still wines made from different grape varieties can be blended prior to secondary fermentation to add balance and complexity to the resulting Sekt.
Reading the label
When shopping for Sekt, it helps if you have a bit of German under your belt. Alongside details like grape variety and ABV, the label will tell you all about the Sekt’s quality designation—written into strict winemaking laws in both Germany and Austria—and the place where it’s grown and made. Deutscher Sekt can only be made from German grapes, while Sekt bestimmter Anbaugebiete must be grown in one of Germany’s 13 quality winegrowing regions. The highest German quality tier, Winzersekt, is bottle-fermented and lees-aged for at least nine months. In Austria, three tiers of quality—Klassik, Reserve, and Große Reserve—regulate region of origin, alcohol level, winemaking methods, and lees aging with increasing strictness.
Labels also reveal Sekt’s sweetness level. Wines labeled herb (equivalent to “brut” in Champagne) contain little to no sugar, while trocken (“dry”) wines can be a tiny bit sweet. You’ll find more sugar in halbtrocken (“off-dry”) or mild (“sweet”) wines, perfect for pairing with dessert (or on those days when a pint of ice cream doesn’t cut it). Sweetness levels are also sometimes expressed in French terms like “brut,” or English words like “dry,” especially in wines intended for wide export.
Sekt to try and recommended pairings
To get started with Sekt this spring, you won’t need to spend much more than the price of a sad desk lunch. Austrian winemaker Szigeti produces a dry, bottle-fermented Klassik made from Grüner Veltliner grown in the Neusidlersee region. The bottle I picked up last week—for about $20, the sweet spot for a host gift—boasted vigorous bubbles, fresh apple and pear flavors, and just-noticeable sweetness. The wine works well as a refreshing counterpart to fatty, salty snacks, like cured meat, smoked salmon, or almonds.
Another affordable choice at around $15 is Sektkellerei Ohlig’s 50° N Brut Weiss, the name of which refers to the latitude of the German winemaking town of Rüdesheim am Rhein. Bottle-fermented and crafted from Müller-Thurgau, Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc, you can pair this brightly acidic, citrusy wine with something equally acidic, like strawberries, cherries, or a green salad with vinaigrette.
For rosé lovers looking to splurge, Von Buhl’s Rosé Brut Sekt comes in at around $42. Grown in Pfalz, where the Haardt Mountains provide one of the driest, warmest climates in Germany by sheltering the region’s vineyards from wind and rain, this Sekt is bone dry with fine bubbles and notes of strawberry, raspberry, and toast. It’s made from 100% Pinot Noir (called “Spätburgunder” in German) and ages on its lees in the bottle for 20 months. Pair it with a seafood dish like Rhine-style mussels, or a soft, fatty cheese like Limburger.