The subject of dosage is a sensitive one, not only in terms of quantity, but even what sort of substance is used to dose a champagne. The standard practice of dosage is to make a liqueur d’expédition, dissolving either cane sugar or beet sugar in a quantity of wine and adding this to the bottle after disgorgement. Recently, however, many producers have switched to a product called MCR, which has sparked a bit of a controversy.
MCR stands for moût concentré rectifié, or concentrated and rectified grape must. The majority of MCR comes from the Languedoc, and sometimes from even farther away, but it’s processed to such a highly neutral state that I doubt that the region or even the grape variety makes a difference at all. Its neutrality, in fact, is the primary reason for using it, and many top growers are preferring it over traditional liqueur, including Larmandier-Bernier, Diebolt-Vallois and René Geoffroy. Geoffroy switched completely to MCR about four years ago, after extensive series of comparative blind tastings, and Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy is very pleased with the results, citing not only its neutrality but its superior freshness as primary factors. “The traditional liqueur has a tendency to oxidize more quickly,” says Geoffroy. “MCR is better at preserving the character of the original wine.”
Not everyone is convinced, however. To begin with, for some people the liqueur d’expédition is an important part of the “finishing” of a wine, especially for major houses such as Billecart-Salmon or Louis Roederer, both of whom put a great deal of care into aging the reserve wines used for their dosage. Also, some people contest the idea of MCR’s neutrality, saying that it contributes an unwelcome character. “MCR is a little syrupy,” says Raphael Bérèche, of Bérèche et Fils. “It’s [the European Union] that tells us to use MCR, in order to absorb all the excess wine.” An additional argument used by many partisans of liqueur is that employing wine from the Languedoc or elsewhere, even in a neutral and concentrated form, is contrary to the idea of terroir. On the other hand, those who favor MCR can point to the fact that the sugar in liqueur is even more foreign, as it doesn’t even come from grapes!
My verdict? I used to think that you couldn’t taste the difference one way or another, but I’ve found that you sometimes can, especially if the dosage is above extra brut levels. If the wine doesn’t have enough body, MCR does feel slightly syrupy on the palate, which is starting to bother me more and more. On the other hand, if the wine has depth and richness of fruit (think Diebolt or Geoffroy), or if the dosage is very low (think Larmandier-Bernier), MCR works out perfectly fine. I do think that it integrates with the wine in time, and the differences are usually pronounced only at the beginning, right after disgorgement. In fact, if you live overseas, by the time the wine gets sent to you across the ocean you probably won’t be able to tell one way or the other. But it’s an interesting argument nevertheless.