Champagne styles are evolving with time and tastes; one such new thinking is keeping champagne-makers busy.
Text: Antoine Lewis
The amount of dosage, the sugar solution added to champagne after disgorgement and before corking, does not usually merit much attention by consumers. Dosage, which determines the sweetness of the champagne, has been a largely irrelevant consideration because just one level of sweetness has dominated the market for so long that most consumers regard it as the de facto champagne style. Though there’s a broad range of categories produced (see box), brut accounts for nearly 90% of all champagnes produced.
In comparison, zero dosage champagne, which is a relatively new phenomenon with a market share of around 0.05%, has an almost negligible presence but is a slowly growing category that many champagne houses are including in their portfolio.
Zero dosage is both old and new. It was first launched by Laurent-Perrier in 1889 and sold under the label of Grand Vin Sans Sucre (great wine without sugar). In 1980, ostensibly in homage to this traditional style, Laurent-Perrier reintroduced the idea of the brut nature with its Ultra Brut champagne. Also called brut nature, brut non-dosé, non-dosage or brut zero, this style is currently only produced by a handful of champagne houses including Pol Roger, Ayala, Tarlant, Larmandier-Bernier, André et Michel Drappier, Veuve Fourny & Fils, Bonnaire and Philipponnat.
Over the years, as houses have been aiming at a lighter and fresher style of champagne, the dosage levels have been dropping. Brut has seen a subtle change with the conventional dosage of 15 gm/lt being eschewed in favour of a lighter dosage of 10-12 gm/lt. The practice has become so widespread that this year the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the apex Champagne body, changed the brut category from a maximum of 15 gm/lt to 12 gm/lt.
Another impetus for this style comes from the reaction of many producers to the use of sugar. Proponents of nondosage wines maintain that the addition of sugar is a remedial measure, and if the grapes were grown properly in the first place, it wouldn’t be needed. Sugar, in their opinion, is often used to hide faults in the raw materials. According to Larmandier-Bernier, if the grapes are harvested when they are ripe and balanced, then low or no dosage is required to appreciate. Laurent-Perrier, for instance, describes its Ultra Brut as appearing, “without make-up, in its natural form.”
While Laurent-Perrier was the first to introduce the idea of zero dosage, Ayala, now owned by Bollinger, was the first to offer a zero dosage rosé with the Cuvée Rosé Nature. The small champagne house, which has chosen to focus on low and zero dosage wines, also produces Ayala Zéro Dosage, a blend of all three champagne varietals and the Cuvée Perle d’Ayala Nature made with a large percentage of Chardonnay and a small percentage of Pinot Noir. Ayala has undertaken a unique approach to the issue of dosage as the base for its Rich Majeur (a demi-sec). Brut Majeur and Zero Dosage are exactly the same with the only difference being in the addition of the sugar. It is, therefore, one of the few houses that allows consumers to experience the effect that dosage has on the finished champagne. Interestingly, Herve Augustin, MD, Champagne Ayala, found that, contrary to perceived wisdom, zero dosage was favoured mostly by women while men preferred the Brut Majeur.
Every house has its own approach to making a zero dosage champagne. For Pure, Pol Roger’s Brut Nature, the team kept the same proportion of grapes as their Brut Reserve, but selected reserve wines that were fruitier with lower bitterness and acidity. The blend that Nicolas Feuillatte uses for its zero dosage, Brut Extrem, differs significantly in the grape varieties, crus and the composition of the cuvée from its classic non-vintage blend.
However, producing a zero dosage champagne is difficult to get right. It is not possible in every vintage and can only be made in years when the grapes are at their optimum ripeness with a good balance of acidity and natural sugar.
These conditions are necessary to create a finished champagne that has the required balance without any dosage. This is significant in Champagne, where due to the cold climate and the chalky soils the ripe grapes usually have high acidity and relatively low sugar levels.
To understand the role of dosage, imagine drinking a glass of fresh lime juice without any sugar added; the flavours of the lime would simply be overwhelmed by its acidity. The addition of a teaspoon of sugar by cutting the acidity would make the drink a lot more palatable. This is why Tom Stevenson, author of the World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, is not a big fan of zero dosage, as he believes that dosage is required to balance champagne’s acid structure. Also, sugar activates the aromas and flavours, allowing them to express themselves on the nose and palate.
One of the effects of zero dosage is that fruit flavours are inclined to get suppressed and the minerality heightened making the wines a bit austere on the palate. This can be a disadvantage, as most people expect champagnes to have expressive aromatic bouquets and a tinge of sweetness on the palate. Brut champagnes are usually drunk as aperitifs and while this works well with zero dosage wines, they make for better food wines.
While it would be presumptuous to suggest that zero dosage wines are a new trend in Champagne, its existence does seem to indicate a new thinking to the subject. So far the majority of producers who have adopted this approach, with a few notable exceptions, are small champagne houses. However, considering the success they have had with this new line and the fact that they have increased production in this category suggest that this could be the start of a new line of bubbles.
Published Liquid magazine January-February 2010. Read the print version here