Considering that Champagne has largely been made in the same way for the past 300 years, it’s surprising to see a small but growing trend emerge in the last 10: bottling bubbles with little-to-no dosage. The factors behind this category’s recent growth spurt—interest in grower wines, a changing climate, and broader consumption of Champagne with food—seem to suggest that the development of similar products will continue. But do these wines really have a place in the Champagne compendium? And which of these wines present a sincere interpretation of terroir versus adherence to a doctrine, fad, or marketing prescription?
A look at why dosage is added to Champagne in the first place seems to be a logical starting point. This final addition to a finished wine, known as liqueur d’expédition in France, is a mixture of wine and sugary syrup that ideally balances the perception of acidity in the wine and also has a hand in the bottle’s final sweetness. Champagne has always been a region that’s worked within the margins of viability. The often tart, high-acid juice made from cool-climate fruit has traditionally benefited from a little sugar to round it out. But dosage also serves as seasoning, like a pinch of salt in food, and it can provide stylistic consistency, especially for, but not limited to, the large houses distributing millions of bottles globally.
However, many winemakers in Champagne, like grower-producer Anselme Selosse of Domaine Jacques Selosse, want to explore the concepts of “terroir, purity, and transparency,” he recently explained via email. As a by-product of this examination, the questioning of dosage—an addition some producers have likened to an enhancement as drastic as surgical cosmetics—organically arose. Conversely, the reassessment of dosage by négociant-manipulant houses, suggests Selosse, may be less about the pursuit of authentic wine than the pursuit of a marketing opportunity. As for noted importer Terry Theise, his view is that some producers are forcing wines into a place of unsuitable dryness, because “that’s the doctrine of this particular zeitgeist.”
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Today’s most popular Champagne style is Brut. It is considered dry—AOC rules allow for up to 12 grams per liter of residual sugar, or RS. Champagne made with six grams per liter or less residual sugar is deemed a low-dosage Extra Brut. At or below 3 grams, the wines can be labeled Brut Nature, Brut Zero, or non-dosé. The low- and non-dosé wines on the market range in success: from the unpleasant, sour, or severe to the sublime, offering a focused current of electric fruit. While a noticeable uptick in Brut Nature and Extra Brut products began about a decade ago, an appreciation for drier styles of Champagne can be traced back to the 19th century.
In 1865, Edmond de Ayala, of the eponymous brand AYALA, enthralled British consumers by offering a Champagne with only 22 grams of residual sugar during a time when most houses dosed their wines with two to five times that amount. In his recently published book “But First, Champagne,” David White notes that other houses—such as Perrier-Jouët, Veuve Clicquot, and Pommery—also released drier wines around that time, with varying degrees of success.
In 1889, Mathilde Emilie Perrier of Laurent-Perrier took the notion of dryness to its furthest limit, debuting a zero-dosage expression called Grand Vin sans Sucre. She bucked the preference for sweeter, Demi-Sec Champagnes to create a product in line with her own taste and that of her British customers. While production of the sans Sucre ceased in the early 20th century, it was a forerunner to the brand’s modern iteration, known as Ultra Brut, which was released in the early 1980s. Ten years ago, Champagne AYALA, too, returned to its roots with the release of its nonvintage Brut Nature.
Running concurrent with the emergence of these bone-dry, négociant-manipulant releases was the rise of site-specific cuvées and grower-producers. According to Sabra Lewis, Champagne buyer and sommelier for Terroir in New York City, the release of wines like Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses and the single-vineyard Champagnes of Chartogne-Taillet helped set off an investigation of terroir in Champagne, encouraging the reevaluation of dosage among grower-producers. As early as the 1970s, Champagne Tarlant made a zero-dosage wine called Zero. Convinced of its worthiness, the domaine ramped up its production of low- and non-dosé wines from a fraction of its output to its entirety. “The idea is to create Champagnes which reflect our terroir. Dosage interferes with that message,” says Melanie Tarlant. “But the idea was not to make a Brut Nature so much as to have a Champagne that does not need dosage.”
While Tarlant came early to this concept, a good deal of credit for the grower movement, and the reassessment of dosage embedded in it, goes to Selosse. “I never wanted to start a movement but rather to highlight Champagne’s place of origin. I never wanted to homogenize or standardize it,” he says. Since the early 80s, Selosse has preached the gospel of responsible farming and transparent winemaking to many of the region’s young vignerons.
“Such dedication might seem obvious for anyone living in a wine region,” says White, “but in Champagne, the historic separation between grape growers and winemakers prevented this mentality from taking root.” Once growers started approaching winemaking with a Burgundian, even “natural” mentality—relying on indigenous yeasts for fermentation, rejecting chaptalization, and working without sulfur and other additives—experimenting with low-dosage and zero-dosage wines seemed a logical progression.” Thus, the absence of dosage can be viewed as another component of natural winemaking.
To be clear, the majority of growers still dose their wines. Non-dosé, for now, lives on the fringe, representing only 1.3 percent of Champagne production. However, a changing climate is poised to increase that number. Indeed, change is already afoot.
As temperatures rise, grapes ripen more easily and acidity softens, lessening the necessity for dosage to offset hard acid. This correlation between climate and dosage levels hasn’t gone unnoticed. Michelle DeFeo, president of Laurent-Perrier U.S., says, “in the mid-2000s, with climate change, vintages were overall getting warmer. In the years following, a slew of high-profile wines in the zero/low-dosage category were released. Around the same time, we started to see a change in the market share of the category.” In 2012, the two driest categories—Brut Nature and Extra Brut—accounted for 0.6 percent of the market. In 2014, they accounted for 1.2 percent. “This has remained steady ever since,” she says.
A third factor in dipping dosage levels relates to Champagne consumption. Lewis notes that historically, people drank Champagne only as a celebratory beverage or with dessert. But as grower Champagne spread to new markets, international sommeliers began to consider it a serious food-pairing option. “I’d say sommeliers had an influence on the growers themselves regarding lowering dosage for food pairing,” says Lewis. “Now most food and wine lovers realize that Champagne pairs with everything. This wasn’t the case with the older styles of higher-dosage Champagne.”
Despite demand for drier, gastronomic wines from sommeliers, producing a Brut Nature or Extra Brut wine is not as simple as forgoing sugar. While Selosse coyly insists that he has no recipe, that he works in service to the wine and does not force the wine to serve fashion (he, too, tends to dose his wines, albeit minimally), the best producers of this style make decisions far in advance of market release to ensure that the resulting wine will have enough balance and pleasure to justify its existence. To that end, specific techniques are available, starting with finding the ripest fruit in the vineyard, triggering malolactic fermentation in the cellar, and allowing for additional aging sur lie to build richness.
So who drinks these wines? Since only a sliver of Champagne production is in this style, it makes sense that core fans live within the sommelier community and a niche of oenophiles. In New York, Caleb Ganzer, the wine director and managing partner of Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels, has cultivated one of the city’s best low- and non-dosé lists, even categorizing his Champagnes by Brut Nature, Extra Brut, and Brut. For him, “tasting less added sugar and focusing more on the grape sugar and fruit flavors is more intellectually stimulating and often more physically pleasurable.” His favorites include Laval, Selosse, and Marguet because he “loves their power and fruit core.”
Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at The NoMad Hotel in New York, says he’s a fan of the zero- and low-dosage style, but mainly from growers pushing quality in the vineyards to achieve greater phenolic ripeness and flavor development in their fruit. “The resulting grapes,” says Pastuszak, “create (in the end) a wine that has enough density, weight, texture, and character that less dosage is actually needed to balance the final wine.” He says he doesn’t support the style as dogma but that when done well, “these Champagnes can have more clarity and transparency than those that are given a higher dosage treatment.”
Ganzer says the wines can be versatile with food too; he’ll put them with anything from oysters and sushi to rabbit, roast chicken—even lamb.
Lewis, however, argues that these wines’ food friendliness comes down to the producer more than the overall style. “Some tend to be too harsh, where others are just right,” she says. “It greatly depends on the growers’ terroir and skill.” Despite the sophisticated clientele at Terroir, Lewis says she hasn’t seen strong demand for these wines—yet. “I’m not getting many requests from consumers, but since no-dosage Champagnes are still a fairly recent phenomenon, it’s very much a work in progress.”
Appreciation by sommeliers and restaurant clientele open to the hand-sell hasn’t yet translated into strong retail demand. Samantha Dugan, sparkling wine specialist and general manager of retail shop The Wine Country in Signal Hill, California, has cultivated a savvy grower-Champagne customer base. She says that three or four years ago, she had a flurry of customers seeking low- or zero-dosage wines but that it’s slowed a bit. “I wondered how long the trend would last,” she says. “I’ve already seen the fever wear off a bit, customers returning to wines with a little dosage—four to nine grams—for sheer deliciousness.”
Ultimately, as with all wines, everything comes down to balance. As White aptly phrases it, “Neither the acid nor sweetness should stick out. Wines with and without dosage can honestly reflect terroir and provide enjoyment.” More emphatically, Theise writes: “Now that grower Champagne is itself trendy, it brought out all the little dogma cockroaches from their hiding places within the walls. As a result, we waste a huge amount of time arguing over how much RS is the right amount, forgetting that this question has already been answered—the right amount is what tastes the best, whether it is zero grams or three or seven or 10. The dry-at-all-costs mentality is sucking a lot of tastiness, charm, and grace from myriad Champagnes.” It turns out that balance, like fashion, is in the eye of the beholder.