Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dosage on the Label

Speaking of putting more information on the label, brooklynguy raised the point yesterday about revealing the amount of dosage. I agree with him — I enjoy seeing this information, and it’s useful to me. But I can see why producers wouldn’t want to do it. It’s even more fraught with danger than putting the disgorgement date on the label.

The first problem is that, as with anything in the world of wine, dosage needs to be put into context in order to be properly understood. For example, one of the considerations is the vintage, or the base year for non-vintage wines (information that is even less likely to appear on a label than dosage): six grams of sugar per liter is going to taste very different in a high-acid vintage like 1996 than in a low-acid vintage like 1999. The amount of reserve wine used, and the type of reserve wine, is also going to affect the balance. You and I know this, and can properly adjust our mental state, but the majority of consumers won’t or can’t adjust their perceptions. A number has a feeling of concreteness and security, and a dangerous misperception that is all too prevalent right now is that a lower dosage is necessarily and automatically better. (And I’m not exempting wine professionals, many of whom ought to know differently.)

The second problem is that getting the correct balance of dosage is not at all a formulaic process. You cannot simply say, “Well, I’ve got x grams per liter of acidity here, therefore I need to add y grams of sugar.” I think of it this way: each wine has its point of optimum balance, which is individually determined by the unique set of characteristics of that particular wine. The trick of a dosage tasting is to find that balance point. As I’ve said before, dosage can fool you very easily, no matter how experienced of a taster you are. (I’ve been in tastings where I swore the 4 g./l. sample tasted perceptively sweeter than the exact same wine dosed at 6 g./l., even after I knew which was which.) Sometimes a wine balances at six grams, sometimes at ten, sometimes at none at all. But each one is different. It’s like taking ten twigs of different shapes and sizes and trying to find the fulcrum point of each. You can’t just measure x number of centimeters and expect it to work for all of them. This is the primary reason why a lower dosage is not automatically better, and the reason why many producers don’t want to reveal the dosage. They just don’t trust us to understand the concept.

Numbers can fool you even in finished champagnes. To cite examples just from wines that I’ve tasted within the last week or so, Françoise Bedel’s Dis, Vin Secret, is dosed at 11 grams per liter, yet it tastes much drier than that due to its extraordinary balance and expression of soil character. Ployez-Jacquemart’s Extra Quality Brut, on the other hand (I don’t mean to pick on them, because they do make wines that I like), has a dosage of only four to six grams per liter, depending on the blend, yet every time I taste it I feel like it tastes much higher.

But to get back to putting dosage on the label, I don’t think it’s nearly as important as the disgorgement date. If a wine tastes balanced, that’s good enough for me. But I admit that I really do like it when producers do it. It’s useful information to me as a taster, and beyond that it also reminds me that this producer really thought about his or her dosage — people who put dosage on the labels are generally among those who obsess over each cuvée, trying to get the balance perfectly right, rather than those who just throw in a knee-jerk amount of sugar every year. I doubt it will ever become a widespread practice, however. It’s just too risky.


J David Harden said...

Back to back enlightenment. Two very good, highly educational posts (for me). Thanks! I am curious though about your take on the idea that dosage is where manipulation is possible. I've heard some version of this argument from several people (usually over a glass of Burgundy and a dissertation on terroir). Seeking balance on the one hand, but, is it fair to say, hiding faults on the other? Just curious on your view.

Neville said...

I love Ployez Jacquemart and I know what you mean about them tasting sweet. I think it is the fact that they are fruit-sweet, not sugar sweet -- it's pure fruit, with no malolactic conversion, and the long, cool ageing process enhances the elegance and finesse. But the maker assured me she used only 3-4g/l of dosage

Peter Liem said...

There is no question that dosage can be used to hide faults or to make a lackluster wine more palatable. A lot of this goes on in Champagne, but just because that happens some of the time doesn't mean that it happens all of the time. There's actually a big debate here in the region about type of dosage and what the most neutral form is, but I'll save that for another post.

I don't believe, as some people do, that dosage is intrinsically flawed or deceptive as a technique. Indeed, I believe that the vast majority of champagnes are much better with dosage than without. And in terms of expressing terroir, a judiciously balanced dosage can actually make a wine more expressive, simply because the wine is allowed to show its full range and depth of aromas, instead of being stunted and restrained like many Champenois wines are without dosage.

Peter Liem said...

I really don't mean to pick on Ployez-Jacquemart. They're a high-quality, very dedicated house, and as I said in my Wine of the Week post last week, they're doing everything right. I just always have problems with the balance of the Extra Quality Brut. Call it fruit-sweetness, call it delicacy, call it elegance, whatever. It's a good wine, and carefully crafted, but I would like to see it drier. As for 3-4 g/l, maybe in the Liesse d'Harbonville that's true, but not for the brut sans année. That's at least 5-6 g/l. Not that pure numbers mean anything, as I've said.

Jesse said...

I enjoyed this post greatly

The other day we tasted a few Champagnes from a single house. We started off with two wines; both were the same wine, with different dosage. One was with zero dosage ("Brut Zero" - a term that makes me cringe a little) the other with around 6grams. I was skeptical before I tasted it and that didn't really change. The wine with zero was sort of unexciting, but the wine with 6grams was beautiful, and much more complete. It left me thinking that maybe (at least in this case) "Brut Zero" is more like a marketing ploy than a good decision. It didn’t seem they had considered the wine, but more the buyer. Why would you have a wine with two different dosage? Shouldn’t you just have a wine with one perfect dosage if it’s a matter of the same wine? 6grams. Perfect.

Peter Liem said...

I agree that the vast majority of the time, a wine finds an ideal balance at one particular point of dosage. Sometimes Brut Zero is a marketing ploy, sometimes it actually makes good wine. Every wine is different. What makes it even harder is that wine is a moving target — it might require a different dosage when disgorged at 18 months than at 3 years, for example.

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