Champagne: How Dry Is Dry?
Producers are adjusting their winemaking methods as warm temperatures are resulting in more naturally balanced wines.
Hervé Deschamps, cellarmaster of Perrier-Jouët, calls it “the salt and pepper that bring out the flavors of the ingredients.” The “it” he refers to is dosage (doe-SOJ), the final flourish of the Champagne blender’s task. Dosage is the addition of a small amount of sugar and still Champagne wine. This is done just before the cork is put in the bottle, and just after the dead yeast cells that make the bubbly fermentation in the wine have been disgorged.
But an increasing number of Champagne houses have launched offerings without any dosage, using only what comes from the vine. These wines, called brut nature or brut zéro, are challenging the traditional concept of blended Champagne, where dosage was considered essential.
“You have a choice,” says Jean-Hervé Chiquet, co-owner and cowinemaker of Champagne Jacquesson. “You can either make a wine without dosage, because it’s the fashion and it looks good on the label, or you can make a wine drier because the wine doesn’t need much dosage. I’m a believer in the second option.”
The Jacquesson Champagnes lean toward dry, he says, because “my brother and I like a Champagne that is a wine first, sparkling second. And we are our most important client.”
Jacquesson’s stance has evolved because of the quality of the grapes.
“Our dosage levels have fallen because of the improvements in viticulture, and because of climate change,” he says. “We regularly get riper grapes. And riper grapes mean lower dosage.”
The Upside of Climate Change
Up until the mid-1990s, dosage was essential to soften the often austere nature of raw Champagne’s high acidity, low alcohol and subtle flavor. Dosage worked because the hard angles and almost unbearable acidity were softened.
Things have changed. It’s easier to make Champagnes with lower or no dosage. Champagne producers don’t need to mask the unripe grapes with sugar.
“In 15 years, we have gone from an average of 12 grams of sugar per liter to eight grams per liter,” says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, deputy managing director of Champagne Louis Roederer. “And we could go lower as long as we can maintain the house style.”
While reducing the dosage on its regular Champagne range, Roederer has also followed the trend to bone-dry Champagne by developing an ultra brut, or brut nature, Champagne. “It is the result of riper grapes, as a result of climate change,” says Lécaillon. “But we are not just doing this because it’s the fashion, but because that is what the climate and the grapes are giving us.”
With the 2011 vintage, Champagne began its earliest harvest ever. Traveling around the vineyards during the summer, the evidence was all around. The vines flowered in May, and the grapes were wellformed by mid-June.
At that time, Didier Gimonnet made a prediction about harvest at his family winery, Pierre Gimonnet et Fils, in the Côte des Blancs: “We haven’t had an October harvest since 1988, and this year, we could well harvest in August.” He was right: Harvest in that region started on August 24. In Reims, headquarters of Champagne Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin, harvest was authorized two days earlier.
What do earlier harvests and riper grapes mean? Champagne’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will never be 14%-plus potential alcohol, as may be found in California fruit. Riper in Champagne means grapes at 10-11% potential alcohol rather than 8%.
It also means that your favorite brand of nonvintage brut Champagne (the style that comprises 80% of the American market for Champagne) will have less dosage, even though it will taste just as it always did—that’s where house style comes in. The master blenders are adapting their blends to cope with the new era.
“While we want to keep the Roederer house style,” says Lécaillon, “we are able to express it even more precisely because the sugar doesn’t get in the way.”
It is also now possible for the Champagne houses to develop approachable bone-dry wines. At Pol Roger, Export Director Laurent d’Harcourt is rightly proud of the company’s brut nature, “which we have called Pure. We were challenged to produce a wine like this and found we could.”
It wasn’t a simple matter of adjusting the dosage, however. “We found making a brut nature is not just a question of taking away the dosage from a standard brut nonvintage,” he says. “We tried that, and it didn’t work. We had to change the blend, take out some of the acidity that is balanced by a dosage, and also add a more floral character” with a different grape balance.
What Comes Around
Bone-dry Champagnes may be the future, but they are far from new. Laurent-Perrier introduced its Ultra Brut brand in 1889. “The British market wanted a dry Champagne, while the rest of the world was still drinking sweet Champagne with dessert,” says Anne-Laure Domenichini, the company’s director of communication.
Withdrawn after World War I, Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut was reintroduced in 1976. “We could do it then because the summer was unusually hot for that period,” says Domenichini—and it has been made ever since, “when the year is right.” Dosed at around three grams of sugar per liter, it’s technically an extra brut (see box on page 66).
While most of the big houses are just reducing the dosage on their regular cuvées, one house has taken up the challenge of bone-dry Champagne in a big way.
Ayala, owned by Bollinger and run separately by Hervé Augustin, produces three brut nature Champagnes. Augustin is a true believer in the future of these very dry Champagnes. “Zero dosage is a big trend for the future, it could become more important than rosé,” he says.
No matter which way the trends are going, it’s safe to say that Champagnes are resembling Chiquet’s model of “wines first, sparkling second.” Expect wines that better express their terroir and fruit, while not losing their essential character in the sugar of the dosage. This is the new, exciting reality of Champagne.
Grading Champagne on the Sweet Spectrum
Each Champagne’s style falls into one of seven categories, depending on the amount of sugar dissolved in the white wine that’s added at the final stage before the bottle is recorked. You will find the style on the label, but keep in mind that many wines can slip from one category to another due to a 3-grams-perliter tolerance between the actual sugar level and what is printed on the label. But if a producer has always made a brut or an extra dry as part of its branding, it may not be ready to let Mother Nature do marketing, too.
Brut Nature, Zéro Dosage:
Champagnes with three grams or less of residual sugar per liter.
91 Ayala NV Brut Nature.
Ayala has adopted very dry Champagne as something of a specialty, and this delicate and deliciously food-friendly wine shows why. It’s so well balanced, the bone-dry citrus flavors integrated into the nervy texture. It would be worth aging for a few months. Cognac One.
abv: 12% Price: $45
Champagnes with six grams or less of residual sugar per liter.
89 Mailly Grand Cru NV Extra Brut.
A dry Champagne, so well balanced that the dryness is integrated into fruit and zesty character. Lemon peel, pink grapefruit and intense white fruits all contribute to this very good Champagne. Saranty Imports.
abv: 12% Price: $51
Champagnes with 12 grams or less of residual sugar per liter.
91 Louis Roederer NV Brut Premier.
A beautifully integrated wine that shows richness, even a touch of toasty age to go with apple flavor and intense acidity. The acidity shows so well against the rich backdrop of ripe fruits and a final edgy texture. Maisons Marques & Domaines USA.
abv: 12% Price: $45
Champagnes with 12–17 grams of residual sugar per liter.
89 Piper-Heidsieck Extra Dry NV.
More boldly yeasty than the brut, this has an intriguing note of coconut in the nose, and the beginning hints of an oily, toasty richness. The extra dollop of sweetness still leaves it tasting fairly dry, but in a more approachable, less austere, style. Remy Cointreau USA.
abv: 12% Price: $35
Champagnes with 17–32 grams of residual sugar per liter.
90 Taittinger NV Nocturne Sec.
In the strange world of Champagne, sec (dry) on the label means a wine that’s less dry than brut. It’s more to do with fullness and weight than sugar. This wine bears ripe fruit, flavors of peaches, creamy pears and light nougat and spice character. Pair this with richly sauced foods. Kobrand.
abv: 12% Price: $100
Champagnes with 32–50 grams of residual sugar per liter.
90 Pol Roger NV Extra Cuvée de Réserve
Rich. A completely convincing sweet Champagne, balancing the natural acidity of the region with the higher dosage. The wine is fruity, with peach and lemon juice combining easily. A wine for fish, shellfish, or just by itself. Frederick Wildman & Sons.
abv: 12.5% Price: $65
The sweetest Champagnes, with more than 50 grams of residual sugar per liter.
This category is only a faint presence on the American market. Champagne Fleury produces a doux Champagne from its biodynamic vineyards in the southern Aube region; they are imported by K&L Wine Merchants, but availability is limited.
Pairing Brut Nature Champagnes:
Treat brut nature Champagnes in the same way you would very dry white wines. Seafood dishes like cod’s roe, scallops, lobster or crab are all fine pairings. Sushi and other Asian-style foods are also good matches with this style. The minerality of brut nature Champagne also acts as a foil to very creamy cheeses. Because they are so dry, brut nature Champagnes are not ideal as stand-alone apéritifs; serve them alongside light hors d’oeuvres with some fat-based richness and a touch of salt, such as assorted charcuterie, roasted almonds or traditional caviar canapés with crème fraîche.
Here are three Champagne and food pairings that are worth celebrating:
Chicken liver or duck pâté: 90 Pol Roger NV Extra Cuvée de Réserve Rich Champagne. $65. (Imported by Frederick Wildman)
Sushi and oysters: 88 Mailly Grand Cru NV Demi-Sec Champagne. $45. (Imported by Saranty Imports)
Red fruits: 88 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin NV Demi-Sec. $53. (Imported by Moët Hennessy USA)
Don't pair ice cream with Champagne. The sugar levels of the ice cream will overpower the bubbly.
Don’t pair Champagne with dark or milk chocolate. Instead, opt for white, which has complementary flavors.