Fine-tuning Champagne….without a dose of sweetness…


Dosage, or the addition of a judicious amount of sweetness into a finished Champagne just before release, has been an important part of the region’s winemaking process ever since Champagne was invented as a sparkling wine. Today, however, many producers are reducing the level of dosage in their Champagnes. Some are choosing to dispense with it altogether.

It ties to a recent trend in Champagne – the proliferation of zero-dosage cuvées, also referred to as non-dosé or brut nature. At their best, these Champagnes offer a scintillating liveliness and clarity of expression, showcasing their winelike fruit flavors and emphasizing their chalky minerality.

At Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Larmandier has been making a brut nature called Terre de Vertus since the 1995 vintage, sourced from parcels that yield exceptionally ripe grapes. “When we first created it,” says Larmandier, “we found that the wine was already harmonious as it was. It didn’t need any dosage.”

Emmanuel Fourny of Veuve Fourny also specifically selects old-vine parcels and parcels prone to high natural ripeness to make his Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature. “For a brut nature you need more substance,” he says. “My goal is to get a natural roundness and richness through a selection of vines and a selection of terroir.”

Not Just About Sweetness

Dosage is typically thought of as a measure of sugar: Add more if you like a sweeter Champagne, use less if you prefer a drier one. This view is oversimplified, though, as the overall harmony of a Champagne relies on the interaction of the dosage with the wine’s other components.

Most notably, Champagne’s naturally high acidity can be overly aggressive; historically, dosage has helped to bring it into better balance.

Tasting the finest examples of undosed Champagne, you realize that the region’s elite growers have actually succeeded in creating an entirely new style of Champagne. These can be a joy to experience: the unmitigated minerality of the Terre de Vertus; the seamless harmony and grace of Franck Pascal’s Sagesse; the vinous intensity of the wines of Vouette et Sorbée.

Champagnes like these are derived from a different paradigm than those made in the classical style, striving for a different type of expression. Traditional Champagnes by houses such as Louis Roederer or Bollinger, or grower Champagnes like Vilmart and Henri Billiot, use the dosage to balance the wine’s other components and amplify the fruit flavors, creating a rounder, more generous and often more complex wine. Non-dosé Champagnes, on the other hand, tend to thrive on a sense of transparency and a sleek, unadorned minerality.

Achieving Harmony

To be successful, a non-dosé – or undosed – Champagne must have sufficient depth and presence to achieve harmony without added sugar. This means the grapes must be riper and more concentrated.
“We have seen a progressive decrease in our dosage almost equally in parallel with our improvements in viticulture,” observes Jean-Hervé Chiquet, owner of the Champagne house Jacquesson.

When the balance isn’t right, though, and particularly when a non-dosé Champagne lacks the depth from the vineyard to back it up, the acidity can feel steely and harsh, and the fruit meager, flattened and inexpressive.

It’s possible to create a properly balanced Champagne that doesn’t include added sugar at all. But most of the time, simply reducing the level of dosage on an existing brut cuvée doesn’t work; the balance of the wine is lost. The final acidity should be appealingly vital and brisk rather than piercing, with the ripe depth of fruit playing the ameliorating role that dosage otherwise does.

Dosage is a hotly debated issue in the region. Even among Champagne’s elite growers, not all agree that non-dosé represents an ideal solution.

“I’m not necessarily a partisan of zero dosage,” says Francis Egly of Egly-Ouriet, who believes that small amounts of dosage bring his wines into better balance. “I compare it to cooking – you need to find a balance to bring out the best in a dish. Sometimes a Champagne will have a slight bitterness that disappears with just a touch of dosage.”

What’s important to remember is that dosage is much more than just a sweetener. “Dosage exists as an agent for harmony and balance,” says importer Terry Theise. “Many Champagnes are low in pH and can be shrill or bitter without dosage.”

It’s not always easy to achieve that harmony. Sometimes it can seem as if wines are being forced into a lack of dosage out of fashion or ideology rather than allowed to naturally find a balance on their own.

Ultimately, the question that wine drinkers should ask isn’t whether a Champagne contains dosage or not, but whether the wine is harmonious.

“The point, always and forever, is to taste, and be guided not by some doctrine you’ve promulgated,” Theise says, “but by your palate and your simple wits.”

The Chronicle