Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cutting Back on Dosage

There’s no question that champagnes are getting drier, especially those of the top growers and houses. There are three primary reasons for this, at least when talking about young champagne. The first is that people are harvesting riper fruit, due to better vineyard practices. Riper fruit gives more stuffing to a wine, and also higher sugar generally results in lower acidity, meaning that you need less dosage to balance the whole. The second reason is that people are harvesting riper fruit due to warmer weather. Whether or not you believe that global warming actually exists, the fact is that champagne grapes are now maturing faster, earlier and to a higher degree of potential alcohol. The third is simply that dry champagne, especially extra brut or, increasingly, non-dosé champagne, is very fashionable right now.

I like extra brut champagne as much as anyone (as you can see from this photo of some recent things I’ve been drinking), and yet I’m not in the camp that believes drier is automatically better. The issue is not that I prefer sugar or don’t prefer sugar. To me, each wine finds its own particular balance – sometimes that’s at a dosage of three grams per liter of sugar, sometimes eight. Sometimes it’s even (gasp!) at ten or eleven, and yes, sometimes – only sometimes – it’s none at all. To say that drier is unequivocally better reminds me of the German riesling trocken craze around the late 1990s. There is a certain segment of champagne that is moving in the same direction. And yet, there are some absolutely brilliant extra brut and non-dosé champagnes. What are your thoughts?


peter said...

Great blog, just came across it from a Tanzer forum post.

Huge champagne fan, I tend toward drier bubbly - big fan of Jacquesson's lineup.

But like you, I dont discriminate. If it's good, I'll drink it!

Interesting point about global warming as well.

Brooklynguy said...

hey peter - i read about a tasting in which a producer and his colleagues at a Champagne house (don't remember which one) tasted many versions of a cuvee, each differing only in the number of grams of sugar in the dosage. They achieved consensus at whatever level, and it was not zero. It might have been, though, given different raw materials. I personally am intrigued by low/non dosage Champs, but to get dogmatic about it is a waste of energy.

your point about higher potential alcohol and riper grapes should be relayed to Dick Cheney.

Henri V. said...

At least when discussing young champagnes, it's a question of balancing the wine's acidity with a bit of residual sugar; such balance is what makes classical German riesling kabinetts and spatleses refreshing despite their sweetness. Some wines will balance at very low dosages, some will be near or at the limit of brut under French wine law (15 g/l, if I recall correctly; that's nearly half an ounce of sugar per bottle, not a trivial amount). Because the carbonation adds significant acidity, even the richest wines may need at least a moderate dosage to achieve balance. But as Mr. Liem notes, a very few wines will balance successfully at extremely low or even zero dosages.

Dogmatic or fashion-driven production of extra brut or brut zero champagnes, to the extent it happens, will simply give us too-severe and/or too-tart champagnes that will rarely be pleasant drinking regardless of food accompaniments.

Mr. Liem's point that global warming will produce riper vintages (equals, usually but not automatically, lower acid) is an important one because it implies that more often, wines will balance properly at lower dosages. Among recent champagne vintages, 1999, 2002 and 2003, and perhaps 2006 are notably low-acid years, 1999 and 2003 historically so. Such vintages may be intrinsically suitable for the production of low-dosage wines.

Tom Stevenson makes the point that developing classical mature champagne flavors requires post-disgorgement aging in the presence of a non-zero dosage. For this reason, one would hope that most brut zero cuvees will be nonvintage wines intended for consumption within several years of release.

Peter Liem said...

Hello Henri,

I agree completely with everything you've said. Your last point, about post-disgorgement aging being critical to the character of mature champagne (or at least the character that we've come to know and love), is very pertinent. While it's possible to have a ten-year-old non-dosé champagne from an older disgorgement (that's an important point) that is very good, it will not have the character, nor the aging potential, of one that has received a dosage. The non-dosés being made today are indeed intended for current consumption, although they don't necessarily have to be non-vintage wines. Honestly, a lot of vintage wines are now being released for immediate appeal. That's not to say that their quality is diminished -- it's just that they are intended to be drunk sooner rather than be aged for decades on the cork.

Peter Liem said...

It’s instructive, and humbling, to taste the exact same champagne at many different dosage levels, disgorged at the same time (although I realize that this is a rare opportunity). In general, when a wine is too dry, it feels raspy and slightly metallic, and the aromas lack length and dimension. When a wine is over-dosed, it feels fluffy and candied, a bit too easy and simple. But if the dosage strikes a perfect balance, it’s like magic. It removes itself from the continuum of dry to sweet, demonstrating something more than just a blend of the right amount of sugar and acid. The wine shows more length and more complexity, and there is less of a perception of individual components. It’s almost as if all the components combine to amplify each other exponentially, and in doing so, transform into something else. It’s the trick of the winemaker to find that balance, and to make things even more difficult, that point of balance keeps changing with time.

That balance of sweetness can also fool even experienced tasters. I remember a blind tasting involving six examples of the same wine dosed at different levels, where the dosage of seven grams actually tasted drier than the exact same wine dosed at four grams, because it was so seamlessly harmonious. (Incidentally, the 7g/l one ended up being the level chosen for commercial release.) Even after knowing which was which, I still insisted that organoleptically, there was a greater perception of sugar in the wine that contained less dosage. I’ll never forget that experience.

Brooklynguy said...

hey peter - that story is amazing. this whole wine thing is just so mysterious. just goes to show how powerful it can be when a wine is truly in balance.

Monica said...

Dear Peter,
It's exciting to hear your comments on non-dosage champagnes. Have you tasted Ayala Zero Dosage and Cuvee Rose Nature? As far as I know, Ayala makes the only non-dosage Rose. I would love to hear your thoughts and tasting notes on this particular champagne. They are, I suspect, just down the road from you, in Ay....

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