As attentive readers will recall, our champagne is currently maturing “sur lie”. The alcoholic fermentation is done and if all goes well, autolysis, the interaction between the dead yeast cells and the wine is taking place. This is quite the complicated chemical process and as I am not a chemist nor have the audacity to assume that I can explain it clearly and accurately let’s just say that the longer the wine ages sur lie, the more complex the final wine will be. After a minimum period of 12 months (36 for a vintage champagne) the bottles can be disgorged. They are then dosed up with a liqueur de dosage, a mixture of wine and sugar that will determine the type of wine. The most common types nowadays are brut nature (<3 grams of sugar), extra brut (up to 6 grams) and brut (up to 12 grams). Each category has a tolerance of 2-3 grams.
Champagne actually used to be a sweet wine, averaging 20 to 30 grams of sugar in the beginning of last century. In today’s terms, this would mean that you would have roughly have the same sugar level in Champagne as in German Kabinett wines or moelleux wines from the Loire (e.g. Vouvray). While there have been attempts to market wines with lower dosage over the past 130 years (Laurent Perrier probably being the first with its Grand Vin Sans Sucre in 1889), I have the impression that only recently levels of dosage have really been in the spotlight, coinciding with the renewed interest in natural wines.
Why would you add sugar to champagne? It is often used to complete a wine. Keep in mind that acidity is the backbone of good champagne, but that it can easily get out of control. If you ever have the opportunity to try the still wines, I can assure you that, while it may be incredibly interesting, it is not a fun experience. After the first ten wines during my first try, everything started tasting the same and I wouldn’t have noticed a glass of lemon juice in the line-up! All the respect therefore to blenders and vignerons, it is an extremely complex but important work. It is necessary to keep acidity in check in order to keep it drinkable. Global warming has actually been advantageous, as overall acidity levels in grapes have dropped. At last weekend’s Dive Bouteille I met Clément Perseval who was presenting his first still wines. They were remarkable, still high in acidity but overall quite nice, especially the pinot meunier!
While this may be supportive of a general trend towards lower dosage levels, it’s not enough. Dosage is added to create a well-balanced acidity, but also because it can simply make champagne taste better, making it more than the sum of all its components. It can unfortunately be too high, often when a producer has something to hide. I’ll never forget a New Year’s Eve when a friend bought a bottle of Laurent Perrier NV. We were out celebrating and forgot about it (it was not that memorable to begin with). When we tasted it again when all the bubbles were gone, only the sickly sweet taste of sugar remained. Too often this is what happens at the grand marques, dosing up the wine to give the impression that it is rich and full of flavour while hiding that the base wine behind it is simply not up to expectations for that price.
The argument most often used by people supporting brut nature wines is that sugar hides the terroir. I only agree up to a certain extent. Yes, it is simply too easy to get rid of little flaws in wine by adding just another gram of sugar. Yes, there are a lot of vignerons in Champagne who do everything to hide the taste of terroir, and I do firmly believe that this should not be the case. Too often though, the taste of terroir and the whole mystical aura that hangs around it are used to justify wines that are simply not good enough. I will have a lot more to say on this in the future, but as far as champagne goes, I think that a vigneron has to be extremely sure that his base wine is good enough to go through the second fermentation in the bottle and through the shock that is disgorgement without needing a tiny bit of sugar added.
In any case, I think a big part of the debate is moot, as it is not only the sugar added to the wine that determines the sensation of sweetness in a wine. Ageing on the lees, batonnage (stirring the wine in the barrel in order to increase contact with the lees, often creating a creamier texture), and the type of sugar used play a big part. If I use cane sugar or rectified grape must I will create a different wine, just like adding cane sugar or stevia to my coffee in the morning will alter the flavour (and my mood if someone dares come near me with stevia!). Even though it is a legal requirement to work with fully dry wines, this may not always be the case as you can block the alcoholic fermentation with a tiny bit of sugar left. You can stop the second fermentation in the bottle as well (e.g. cooling the bottles to prevent the yeasts from working) as soon as you get to the required level of pressure. Getting rid of the yeast cells afterwards at disgorgement is no problem, so who is to know? Sure, you can claim that it’s a brut nature champagne, but the sensation of sweetness can still be there.
This is a complex debate that is often conducted too black and white. Dosage has a purpose and if that is simply not being there, all the better. I can think of a lot of excellent champagnes that have never seen a milligram of sugar added to them and I admire the winegrower who can make something so beautiful. All the same, I can think of (expensive) champagnes ruined by their lack of dosage and the resulting austerity, the one-sidedness that ends up dominating the palate, only going to show that dosage can be discussed on the level of individual wines, but not on the scale of the entire appellation.