A sparkling wine’s dosage or liqueur d’expedition—the final adjustment made to a traditional-method sparkling wine before bottling—is almost always communicated as a number: grams per liter of sugar. This might suggest that a dosage is a quantifiable measure of a wine’s sweetness level and that a higher dose results in a sweeter wine. Most winemakers, researchers, and tasting experts, however, would dispute this popular belief.
“Dosage is not about sweetness,” wrote Peter Liem in his book Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region. “It’s about harmony.”
Dosage fills a practical role—replenishing wine lost during disgorgement—but it also offers winemakers a last opportunity to “adjust the sensory profile of the wine,” says Kenneth McMahon, Ph.D, the winemaker and cofounder of Oregon’s Arabilis Wines, who studied dosage as part of his doctoral dissertation. Many have likened the role of dosage in sparkling wine to the role that salt plays in food. “We don’t necessarily put salt in food to make it salty, but instead to amplify other flavors and make them more expressive and complete—in effect, salt makes beef taste beefier,” says Liem. “Dosage does the exact same thing in a Champagne, multiplying flavors and bringing them into better harmony.”
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How exactly does dosage change the sensory profile and produce a more harmonious wine? There are myriad options available when crafting a dosage, each of which will impact the final wine in different ways. Here, researchers and winemakers shed light on this little-discussed winemaking step, offering a deeper understanding of its true importance.
What’s in a Dosage?
Despite the simplistic way in which dosage is often communicated, it’s as complex as any other winemaking step. At its most basic, dosage is a blend of wine and sugar—or simply grape must—but the type of wine, sugar, and must, as well as the option to include other additives, creates a seemingly endless list of choices.
As researcher Hannah Charnock and her team detailed in a recent study from 2023, a “dosage can be a mixture of wine (aged or non-aged), grape must, or a blend of wine and grape must, which can include the addition of cane or beet sugar (sucrose), liquid sugar (dextrose), rectified concentrated grape must, oxidized wine, SO2, citric acid, tannin, and occasionally brandy, Icewine, or other spirits.”
“There’s so many variables, even in that one little step,” says Dr. McMahon. “You can have base wine from this year, or from the 1900s. You can have base wine from a different variety. There’s so many angles that you can play with just in the base wine. And now you add sugar, and if you want SO2—there’s just so much.”
The Sugar Element
Within the sugar component of the dosage, both the type of sugar and the amount used have an impact on the final wine. While the goal of the sugar addition is not to impart flavor, it will change how the wine’s flavors are perceived.
As McMahon detailed in a 2017 study, “Wineries will use cane sugar or sucrose, beet sugar, grape must, concentrated grape juice, rectified concentrated grape juice, or a mixture of these ingredients.” Within these options, a few choices stand out, whether the wine is being made in France, California, Spain, or South Africa. “Most people are doing cane sugar, so sucrose, because it’s cheap, it’s readily available, and it has a really good sweetness perception,” says McMahon. “You could do glucose or fructose. Fructose is cheap, but it’s sweeter. Fructose is sweeter than sucrose, which is sweeter than glucose.”
In McMahon’s study, which looked at the impact of sugar level and sugar type on the sensory profile of the wine, “We found that sucrose and fructose gave the best balance in the wine [and enhanced the] fruit flavor,” says McMahon. “So we saw a significant increase in the intensity of those wines versus [wine dosed with] glucose.”
In Champagne, both cane and beet sugar are widely used, the latter of which is locally grown and also made of sucrose. “It’s subtle, but I’ve done comparative tastings between beet and cane sugar in finished Champagnes, and I find cane sugar to be just a little finer in texture and tone,” says Liem. “But it would be hard to spot if it weren’t side by side.”
In Spain, Cava winemaker Bruno Colomer, who uses beet sugar, has also done comparative tests at Raventós Codorníu. “The type of sugar has an impact on the final Cava style, but it is not really significant,” says Colomer. “Over the years we have done several tests with both cane sugar and [beet] root sugar and we see no major differences between them in the final Cava.”
However, in a study published in 2022, Andrew Wilson, now the winemaker for Oxley Estate Winery in Canada, and his team found that “beet sugar increased some ‘fruity’ VOCs [volatile aroma compounds] in the finished sparkling wines” compared to samples dosed with cane sugar, pointing to sensory differences even within sucrose. Wilson suggested that the differences are ”likely due to the fatty acids present in the beet sugar that originate from its manufacturing process.”
Belinda Kemp, Ph.D., currently the viticulture and oenology research group leader at NIAB, hosted a Fizz Club while working as a researcher at the Cool Climate Oenology & Viticulture Institute in Canada. At a tasting session for the club, which was only open to sparkling winemakers, “all the winemakers found differences between [sugar types]. Some preferred cane and others beet sugar,” says Kemp.
The form of the sugar can also play a role. “We use cane sugar, but we use it in a syrup form,” says Paul Gerber, the winemaker for Colmant in South Africa. “It mixes much more easily, but you also mix a lot less if you use sugar in that syrup form. Mixing is often overlooked as a potential place for oxidation. A high amount of mixing at a really high temperature can lead to more oxidation in the juice.”
Another widely used, but more controversial, choice is MCR, or concentrated and rectified grape must, which is made up of glucose and fructose and often replaces a sugar and wine mixture. Liem explains, “It’s widely used among top producers, but also rejected by many as well.” Winemakers that use it, such as Jerome Legras of Legras & Haas in Champagne, favor it because it’s a neutral sweetener derived from grapes. It’s also shelf stable and won’t oxidize over time. Winemakers that reject it believe that the way in which it’s processed can give it an artificial taste and texture. Liem has done comparative tastings between MCR and cane sugar doses and found the results to be inconclusive.
The Wine Element
When it comes to the dosage wine, the options are even greater, and the impact on the finished wine is often more profound. “Dosage is maybe two percent of the volume of what’s actually in the wine bottle,” says Harry Hansen, the winemaker for Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma, California. “Of that, about 50 percent is sugar, so the wine is maybe one percent. Does one percent make a difference? Oh you better believe it.”
“The importance of [the wine] element in the bottle is often overlooked, but it is much more profound than the difference between six and nine grams per liter of sugar,” says Hugh Davies, the president of Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley. “Do we need Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or a mix? Does it want to be two, five, or 10 years old, or again a mix? What about the role of Pinot Noir, made with some skin contact, in the preparation of rosé dosages? My explanation is just scratching the surface here.”
At many wineries, such as Frank Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, the approach to dosage wine is relatively straightforward. “We take the still base variety from the sparkling wine we’re working with, extract a few gallons, and make a simple syrup using the base wine and pure cane sugar,” says winemaker Todd Graff. “For instance, when crafting the Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, we draw from the base Chardonnay.”
But, when needed, dosage wines can be used as a blending component in much the same way that any wine blend is made. “If you have a young sparkling wine and want to introduce some maturity, producers may opt for a dosage made with an older vintage base wine, and vice versa,” says Graff. “If you have a lean wine and aim to enhance its depth, you can choose a richer dosage to be added accordingly.”
The ability of the dosage wine to influence the wine’s sensory profile has also led to a high degree of experimentation. Some winemakers age their dosage wine in magnums or demijohns. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, winemakers have used red wine in their dosage to create a sparkling rosé wine, or even used brandy, a historical practice, as a way to correct alcohol levels. According to Liem, “Equipo Navazos has made sparkling wine using manzanilla or palo cortado sherry as dosage, and the wines are delicious, if unusual.” The options for dosage wine, and the different approaches taken by winemakers, are ultimately as varied as the wines they produce.
Evolving Approaches to Dosage
Over the last century, approaches to dosage have changed dramatically. “It’s always been an evolution, ever since Champagne was invented,” says Liem. “It moved from hundreds of grams per liter [of sugar] down to around 15 to 20 grams per liter by the 20th century, and then after World War II, we more or less settled on [up to] 15 [grams] as brut.”
There are several reasons why dosage sugar levels have decreased, such as climate change and evolving consumer preferences. “Climate is one,” says Liem, “as riper fruit can allow you to lower your dosage, although maybe not as much as you might think. Consumer preference or cultural taste is another big one: in the modern day, we simply prefer drier wines to sweeter ones.”
In McMahon’s 2017 study, “We [tested] brut, which was 12 grams per liter, then we did demi-sec, which was 36. Demi-sec … wasn’t as well liked as the brut because there’s an expectation [today] that customers have in terms of wine.”
More recently, philosophy has played a much bigger role in winemakers’ approach to dosage. “There’s a contrast between producers who view dosage as imparting a finishing touch to the wine, thereby seeking a dosage with character and personality, and those who want dosage to be as neutral as possible. Neither is right or wrong, but they take you down different roads,” says Liem.
The Non-Dosé Alternative
Liem would argue that such reasoning is nonsensical—a dosage is not there to mask flavors, but rather enhance them. “[Dosage is] not about making a wine sweeter, as many believe, but rather it enhances other components and flavors in the wine,” says Liem. “This isn’t to say that you can’t make good Champagne without dosage, but in that case you have to find something else to fulfill that function, typically more dry extract or phenolics.”
For Legras, “When trying to find the best dosage for an extra brut Champagne, we rarely find the absence of dosage to be the best option,” he says. “The feeling of sweetness, as well as the aromatic intensity, is not linear. This is surprising, but we have observed this in almost every dosage tasting.”
Winemaker Matt Dees, who makes non-dosé sparkling wines at The Hilt in Santa Barbara, has recently started to “question how brut nature [wine] evolves” after a recent trip to Champagne. “In some ways, the sugar in the dosage is a preservative,” says Dees. “The dosage [has an effect on] the flavor and way it evolves, the way the aromatics grow, and the way the palate grows. The depth of the wine increases. A lot of the dosage in those wines as they mature becomes fascinating. It becomes part of the story.”
In response to this experience, Dees decided to play with his dosage. “We did an experiment this year with a 1.5-gram [per liter of sugar] dosage,” says Dees. “I think [sugar] offers a great deal if it’s done in a reserved manner. The 1.5 [grams] we used this last time was pretty remarkable, and probably in the long term a better wine.”
Indeed, in Champagne many producers agree that sugar is required for a wine to age well. “This was actually pretty true of Champagnes in the late 20th century, when industrial farming and increased production created wines that lacked the internal stuffing of wines from the pre-1970s,” says Liem. “With a return to higher quality viticulture today, I believe that low-dosage and non-dosé Champagnes have the ability to age well, not relying on sugar, but instead on concentration and dry extract, in effect aging as an equivalent still wine would.”
Ultimately, the amount of sugar in the final wine is irrelevant. “Numbers in and of themselves are meaningless: we don’t ask a chef how many milligrams of salt are in a dish, but anyone can tell if a dish is under- or over-salted,” says Liem. “Dosage is about balance and harmony, but it’s not only a simple balance of sugar and acidity, as you’ll often read in wine books. It’s a balancing of components in a way that enhances and amplifies flavor, thereby making a wine more expressive and more complete.”
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Caitlin A. Miller is a New York-based wine writer and the current associate editor for SevenFifty Daily. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Vinous, and Christie’s International Real Estate Magazine. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and was the recipient of the 2020 Vinous Young Wine Writer Fellowship.