Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Words by Jean-Remi Barbier
Champagne has evolved greatly over the last centuries. Whether it is by better controlling the effervescence during the second fermentation in the bottle, considering the first mention of sugar being added to increase the effervescence of the finished bottle was in 1821, or by changing the winemaking techniques, such as the ageing time on the lees, the use of oak, or giving up the malolactic fermentation.
However, one major factor which has evolved considerably is the amount of sugar added into the liqueur d’expédition, also referred to as dosage. This amount of sugar determines the level of sweetness in the bottle and is the last step of the production, after the disgorgement, before labelling.
In this article, we are going to look closer at the changing taste of champagne, what are the reasons of this change and how important the impact of dosage is.
A little history
In the 1600’s most champagne was a still “red” wine, considering the effervescence wasn’t controlled yet and was associated with impurity in the bottle. However, by 1850, red wine production had dropped from 90% to 66% of the total production. How consumers drunk champagne dictated the evolution of taste. For a long time considered as a dessert wine or as an “entremet” being the interval between the meat course and the dessert, especially in France, champagne had an considerable amount of sugar. Nonetheless, as of the middle of the 19th century, because they drunk champagne at the beginning and during the meal, British preferred a less-sugared style. Indeed, mentions like “dry” or “very dry” appeared on the labels of the vintages 1857, 1865, 1870, 1874 marketed by few houses. The US followed this trend; the Americans wanted a less-sugared style of champagne because it appealed more to their taste. A classification established by Henry Vizetelly in 1882* distinguished the wines regarding their destination country. The ‘British taste’ was very “dry”: 22-66g of sugar per liter; the ‘American taste’, “off-dry”: 110-165g; the Germans, French, and Austrians, “sweet”: 165-200g; the ‘Russian taste’, “candied and confectionary”: 275-330g. Nowadays, it sounds unbelievable!
One of the last bottles left of the 1874 Pommery Brut Nature in their cellars in Reims
We attribute the creation of the first brut champagne to Madame Pommery in 1874, with Pommery Nature. In matters of taste she was ahead of her time.
In France and in other countries, it is slowly, after 1920s, that champagne dosage gave way to brut as we know it today. The proportion of brut champagne reached half of the total shipments at the beginning of the 1950s and kept growing to between 85 to 90% today. A brut champagne has a dosage between 0 to 12 grams of sugar per liter. Champagne’s ten largest brut non-vintage brands have dropped their dosages since 1991 nearly by 2.8g/l, and are all under 11g/l today, with the average at 9g/l. Brut Imperial, the most selling Brut Multi Vintage, from Moet & Chandon lowered its dosage from 12g to 9g.
Source: Wine Scholar Guild
Today the taste of a small proportion of consumers is changing towards non dosés. More houses and winegrowers now include a zero dosage in their range. Following their first attempt of “great wine without sugar” at the end of 19th century, the house Laurent-Perrier relaunched in 1981 a “cuvée without sugar” and was a pioneer in its category.
Unlike most of the wines, champagne comes from the consumer’s demands and not the winegrower’s supply. The same consumers dictate the changing taste of champagne and how it is consumed. After the second half of the 20th century, champagne consumption as aperitif, during meals, in the middle of the day and the night increased, and the demand pushed for lower dosage wine.
Climate, terroir and philosophy
Another major reason in the changing taste of champagne is the climate change, and probably some sceptics will grind their teeth.
During my school years in Champagne, I remember of going back to school before the harvest has started as it has traditionally occurred around September 20th. Today, grapes are picked 10 to 14 days earlier. Since 2003, five harvests have started in August. This year, already unique in many ways, has seen the earliest harvest, starting on August 13th!
Climate change is impacting the region. Yields are higher and grapes are riper which lowers the acids and increase the sugar level.
The change in the berry composition is influencing 2 steps to the final product: the dosage and the malolactic fermentation. The first one, as explained previously tends to be lowered or zero. The malolactic fermentation tends to be partial or skipped. This is the process that transforms malic acid into lactic acid. Like all forms of fermentation, malolactic fermentation influences wine aroma development, in this case making for softer, riper, generally creamier sensations.
The perfect example is from Champagne Louis Roederer Brut Nature, in collaboration with creator Philippe Starck, first released in 2006. This zero-dosage cuvée is made with 100% estate-grown grapes from 3 plots in Cumières, organically and biodynamically farmed and the wine does not undergo the malolactic fermentation. Conceived as the natural extension of the clay terroir of the Cumières hillsides, this cuvée brings a pioneering vision of wine. However, the Maison claims the farming techniques are entirely the byproduct of global warming and an interest in more flavorful wines, not some trend. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Executive Vice-President and Chef de Caves says “when you have a good base, the sugar is just an artifice”.
Philippe Starck, CEO Frederic Rouzaud and Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon
For Aurelien Suenen, winegrower at Champagne Suenen in Cramant, “the dosage is the signature of the winegrower, his or her own sensibility”. He claims to make his wines for himself first and foremost and not for his consumers. Suenen wants to reflect the salinity and the iodized taste, proper expression of his terroir.
“The more I increase the dosage and the more I mask this terroir, and it loses the soul of my wines” said Suenen.
Dosage tasting at Suenen in 2014. Image Instagram Aurelien Suenen
Like Suenen, many winegrowers in the region want to use their wines to enhance the expression of the terroir they come from. The pioneer is Anselme Selosse – Champagne Jacques Selosse, in Avize – who considers dosage as “make-up”. Indeed, almost all the wines he produces are always very low in dosage, further expressing the aspect of each vineyard site. Few years ago, when visiting the winery with Anselme himself, he made me taste the same wine with different levels of dosage. The difference from 0.5gr was significant.
We can also mention Vincent Laval, winegrower in Cumières, from Champagne Georges Laval, who produces only zero dosage wines. When I met him for the first time in New York in 2019, he told me he wants to have his wines as pure as possible. Not adding any dosage is in accordance with his philosophy of making wine with minimal intervention.
Acknowledging that “skipping the dosage step is an anti-conformist move”, the CIVC admits the phenomenon has become a real topic of conversation in the region. “We are faced to another style of champagne, with fully-fledged quality” says Thibault Le Mailloux, director of communication at CIVC. “Like a niche wine that would keep a novelty character that can seduce different markets”.
Appreciated among the gastronomes and enthusiasts, the zero dosage is preferred by initiated drinker especially Scandinavians, Japanese – for the iodized food pairing, and Americans – which see it as a diet champagne. A misconception mentioned by Frédéric Panaïotis, chef de caves at Ruinart « because there is only 4 kcal difference between a glass of zero dosage and a glass of brut”.
Some will say zero dosage will bring a very bright and tense wine that will be too austere. Some can see a marketing tool to promote a more expensive bottle.
However, Champagne Drappier in Urville, a pioneer in brut nature, released in the market its first cuvee in 1995 after a first attempt 3 years before, using the blend of Carte d’Or, their brut non-vintage. Quickly they realized the terroir of Urville which is 100% Pinot Noir was perfect for a non-dosé. The 8th generation, Charline Drappier, business director, knows “this wine was seen as a wine synonymous of extreme rigor and any mistake in the winemaking won’t be forgiven.” It is first the idea of a wine. Pinot Noir is central for the family, a grape varietal fleshy and fruity, but sometimes criticized for its “vinous” aspect in champagne. Michel Drappier, 7th generation still at the helm of the Maison, wanted to make it lifted, mineral and bold because the absence of dosage allows to better taste the salinity of the limestone-rich Kimmeridgean marl, specific to the family’s terroir.
Located in the South of the Appellation, the maturity is sufficient to skip the liqueur d’expédition in some plots, until the climate change truly affects the growing season. Finally, Charline agrees the taste for champagne is less on the sweet side, it became an underlying trend. “A stroke of luck!”. Nowadays, the cuvée is sourced from 10 plots and counts for 20% of the family’s production, 30% if you add the Brut Nature without added sulfur and Brut Nature Rosé – steadily increasing.
Charline discusses the elaboration of the Brut Nature
Low-dosage wines have seen extremely dynamic growth: exports have increased ten-fold in just ten years, reaching 3 million bottles in 2019 (+43.3%). Accounting for just 1.9% of the market by volume, these cuvées are enjoying growth across the globe, particularly in the Asian markets (Japan, China and South Korea).
More winegrowers and Houses have been entering the low dosage segment and this will gradually continue. However, the reasons might differ slightly from one to another. Some are driven by their philosophy and the passion for their terroir, some adapt their wines with today’s reality: climate change, and some must see an opportunity and want to follow the trend. Will this trend, combined with climate change, bring more low dosage champagnes in the next decades? Will we one day have more extra-brut and zéro dosage than brut? We can also wonder which other major changes in the winemaking process will impact the taste of champagne to always satisfy the demand and adapt to the tomorrow’s challenges.
After reading this article, you're probably wondering which bottle you’re going to open. Here are my suggestions:
1) Low dosage
· Suenen C+C Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Extra-Brut
· Jacques Selosse V.O
· Eric Rodez Les Beurys 2010 Pinot Noir
· Etienne Calsac L’Échappée Belle Extra-Brut
· Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Les Barres Extra-Brut 2015
· Billecart Salmon Extra-Brut
· Leclerc Briant Brut Réserve
2) Zero dosage
· Louis Roederer Brut Nature Rosé 2012
· Pommery Cuvée Louise Nature 2004
· Drappier Brut Nature Zéro Dosage
· Agrapart Vénus
· Tarlant Zéro Brut Nature
· Georges Laval Cumières Premier Cru
About Jean-Remi Barbier:
Born and raised in Epernay, in the heart of the Champagne region, Jean-Remi now lives in New York. He works for a renowned wine importer and develop the market in the Big Apple as well as The Hamptons, working closely with high-end restaurants, private clubs, luxury hotels, fine wine retailers and wine collectors. When he’s not working, he can be found in his kitchen – cooking, always with a glass of champagne. Connect with him on Instagram and LinkedIn
* "History of Champagne" 1882