Monday, November 17, 2008

Fooled by Dosage for the Umpteenth Time

Last week I received a call from Agnès Corbon of Champagne Claude Corbon, inviting me to an intriguing tasting. One of Corbon’s importers wants to have a special cuvée made for them, and the Corbons are attempting to figure out the final dosage for the wine. To help facilitate this, they invited a number of people to participate in a dosage tasting, with all of the wines served blind, of course.

I’ve done many tastings like this before, comparing different levels of dosage in the same wine, and what surprises me nearly every time is how different the perception of sweetness is versus the actual sugar levels of the wines. Consumers are often numerically-obsessed in many more ways than one, and it’s largely assumed, not without logical reason, that a champagne dosed at four grams of sugar per liter will taste drier than one dosed at six grams, which will in turn taste drier than one dosed at eight grams. But champagne, or maybe taste in general, doesn’t work that way. It’s not a linear progression from one digit to the next.

I’ve always maintained that every champagne has its own individual point of balance, a fulcrum that when found, allows the wine to express itself to its fullest ability. Sometimes it might be at seven grams of dosage, other times three. Sometimes it might be at ten or eleven, as un-hip as that sounds. And yes, for all of you fashionistas, sometimes—but very infrequently—it is indeed none at all.

This principle was proven to me yet again in Corbon’s tasting. Three different versions of the same wine were served together in black glasses, (actually, we weren’t told that they were all the same wine, but I correctly assumed that they were), and we were instructed to taste them, without any prior clues or commentary. The first was the most oxidative, showing some caramelly, creamy aromas, although I did find the nose to be very attractive. On the palate, however, it seemed a bit confectionary, its nougat and rum-raisin sweetness feeling a bit cloying—I liked the complexity and the maturity of flavor, but I found the sugar to be imbalanced and overly prominent. The third sample (I know, I’m not being linear either, but bear with me here) was the freshest in aroma, the most streamlined, the most vivid. The flavors were much less developed than in the first wine, not showing as much complexity for now, and in fact perhaps showing the least complexity of the three. But the balance in the intertwining of fruit, acidity and sugar here was the most agreeable out of the three wines, with the dosage completely unnoticeable and the finish dry, minerally and long. The middle wine was less oxidative and less perceptibly sweet than the first, and richer in texture, more developed and more complex in flavor than the third. You would think that, in Goldilocks fashion, it might be just right. Yet the balance of sugar here wasn’t nearly as precise as in the third wine, even though there was more depth of fruit and more material showing. The dosage still felt a little sweet and prominent, like a radio that’s just slightly too loud.

We were told to rank the wines in order of preference, and I picked the third sample as my favorite, simply for its impeccable balance. I liked the expression of the middle wine, and would have ranked it first if it had tasted slightly less sweet. I liked the nose of the first wine, but found the palate to be overly sweet, and ranked it last. I was fairly confident that this was also the order of sweetness, from lowest to highest, although that had nothing to do with why I ranked them that way.

In fact, when the results were unveiled, the first wine, which I had found to be oppressively sweet, had only six grams per liter of dosage, as did the middle wine. The third wine, which tasted the driest to me, and which I found to have the most balance, was dosed at eight grams per liter—two grams higher than the other wines! To be fair, the dosage in each was not the same—the third wine, dosed at eight grams, was done with a traditional liqueur d’expédition of cane sugar, while the six-gram dosage in the first wine was MCR (concentrated and rectified grape must), which usually seems to give a higher perception of sweetness than the equivalent amount of sugar does. (The middle wine was half liqueur and half MCR.) But still, it demonstrated to me once again that numbers are a poor indicator of the balance of a wine. There are people who would turn up their noses at a champagne with an eight-gram dosage, preferring a six-gram wine purely on principle. In the case of a wine such as this one, they would be foolish.


Brooklynguy said...

I love the fulcrum analogy - I get it. It kind of defies logic that this wine had the highest dosage and seemed less sweet to you, but these things are not linear, I guess. It would have been even more interesting had they limited the variables to only grams in the dosage, left the type of dosage for another experiment. As it stands, and as you pointed out, it's impossible to pin the differences in these wines solely on dosage.

Peter Liem said...

Yeah, there were entirely too many variables going on there to make it a strict dosage comparison. But it was interesting nevertheless. I guess what I forgot to mention, although I’m sure I have before, is that if you do find that fulcrum point, the dosage seems to vanish, melding into the wine and integrating itself as one of many components, while allowing the other components to express themselves with equal intensity. The wine tastes less overtly sweet, the flavors become more complex, and the length, if there’s length there to begin with, will grow longer and more complete. Even a half gram to either side can make a pronounced difference. But the trick is to find this point, and that’s not always easy.

Josh from Wine Tastings Guide said...

Hey Peter. Interesting experiment and discussion. I've seen Terry Theise's reports on similar tasting experiments with similar surprising results. I like to compare the emotional and aesthetic effect that wine can have to other forms of art. I think the fulcrum analogy could also be compared to other forms. For example, a painter may use a certain color in a painting. The right amount and it helps add to the "complexity" of the painting and helps to set off other colors and components whereas too much would dominate and just look like that color. Too little and the advantages of that highlight are lost. The same could be said of music, etc. Cheers!

Joe said...

A gram of sucrose is less sweet than a gram of fructose/glucose, and wouldn't the MCR have a lot more monomeric sugars?

I'm stretching for old memories, but I think that's where I come down.


Peter Liem said...

What you say makes sense, Joe, but you would know more than I would. I do think that organoleptically speaking, MCR always seems to taste sweeter than sugar, and it also has a different texture. I like it less and less the more I taste it. If it's somebody like Pierre Larmandier, who doses at only three or four grams, then it works fine, but sometimes when it's a higher dosage it can feel a little syrupy.