Features Sugar-Free Champagne Just Got Serious

Sugar-Free Champagne Just Got Serious

The Champagne region may be one of the few beneficiaries of a warming planet.
© Visit French Wine | The Champagne region may be one of the few beneficiaries of a warming planet.
As climate change aids ripening in Champagne, sugar-free styles may finally come into their own.
By James Lawrence | Posted Monday, 04-Jan-2021

In 2014, Louis Roederer launched its inaugural zero dosage vintage cuvée – Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2006. Wine geeks rejoiced; it was an opportunity to experience vintage Champagne in its purest form. No reserves, no dosage wine from the previous harvest. And most of all, no sugar.

I didn't realize this at the time, but many of the top houses release vintage Champagne which contains a small element of sweetened reserves. The label may proclaim 2008, but the winemaker is entitled to add dosage wine from previous harvests. Even if the older wine makes up less than 1 percent of the total volume of the bottle, these reserves do have an impact on your flute of 2008 Grande Année. In that sense, true vintage expressions are a relatively rare phenomenon.

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This has been the standard practice for generations. The Champenoise, like all winemakers, overuse the word "balance" to the point of criminality. They love balance more than they adore their mistresses. There is rarely a consensus among growers and Grandes Marques, but most agree that dosage has historically been important in producing balanced sparkling wine. It rounded out the high acidity that came naturally to Champagne, adding all-important complexity and mouthfeel. Sugar was the secret weapon of the Champenoise. In weak vintages, they grabbed a tonne of the stuff. It was their knight in white armor – a reprieve from the vagaries of an often rain-soaked climate.

In 2021, however, winemakers are more likely to complain about overripeness and flabby wines, rather than an excess of malic acid. Global warming is remarkably consistent in its ability to necessitate change; viticultural and winemaking practices are constantly being adapted in Champagne, to cope with warmer conditions, lower acidity and riper grapes.

Today, the emergence of a critical mass of Champagnes which exclude sugar seems far from ludicrous.

Laurent-Perrier started the ball rolling, when they marketed 'Grand vin Sans Sucre' in the late 19th Century. At the time it was considered an anomaly, rather than the start of something big. More recently, Bruno Paillard, Philipponnat, Billecart-Salmon and Joseph Perrier have all launched an NV zero dosage cuvée over the past decade. Joseph Perrier's NV version stood out as a particularly fine example of the genre; it demonstrated a balance – sorry, that word again – and generosity of texture rarely seen in Brut Nature Champagne.

Are sugar-free vintage labels the next logical step?

"Argh, you journalists do love obsessing over dosage," replies Mathieu Roland-Billecart, chief executive officer at Billecart-Salmon.

"But yes, it's true that greater levels of maturity in Champagne make it (potentially) easier to make balanced zero dosage vintage expressions. We actually produced a Brut Nature version of our single-vineyard Clos St Hilaire in 2002, although it wasn't labeled as such. As much as it represents a changing viticultural reality in Champagne, zero dosage is also a fad, and we don't chase trends at Billecart-Salmon."

Yet Roland-Billecart is currently debating whether to produce a vintage label, sans sucre, from the very ripe (by local standards) 2019 and 2020 vintages.

"It is certainly a possibility that future vintage expressions of Billecart-Salmon won't need any dosage," he says.

"2019 is a case in point. The inherent ripeness and generosity of the vintage may render dosage unnecessary."

Several of the region's most important houses have been systematically reducing the level of sugar in their cuvées for some time now. Moet & Chandon's 2009 vintage contained just 5g/l of dosage – this has been the case since 2002. Meanwhile, its upmarket cousin, Dom Perignon 2009, contained just 4g/l. Krug's 2004 vintage comes in at 6g/l.

However, there is no rule which states that lower dosage wines have to be labeled as such. Brut is open to any Champagne with less than 12g/l.

"This would have been unthinkable two decades ago, but since the start of my tenure I've gradually lowered the dosage of the Moet Brut Imperial and Grand Vintage, in lieu of the rising levels of ripeness in Champagne," said Moet's chef de caves Benoit Gouez.

Zero-dosage wines used to have a reputation for being unbalanced but, as techniques and tastes change, dosage is slowly becoming less necessary.
© iStock | Zero-dosage wines used to have a reputation for being unbalanced but, as techniques and tastes change, dosage is slowly becoming less necessary.

"Higher dosage levels are becoming an increasingly unnecessary addition – the perfect balance of the 2012 is a testament to that fact."

Winemakers like Gouez believe that Champagne is looking towards a drier future – the inevitable corollary of global warming and Burgundian levels of ripeness.

"Historically, the main issue in Champagne used to be whether you could get your grapes ripe enough," said AR Lenoble's owner Antoine Malassagne in 2018.

"Now we don't have a problem with that and the big issue is acidity levels. The harvest in Champagne is getting earlier each year, which means the acidity levels in the wines is going down. In order to maintain the right acidity level in my Champagnes, I decided to completely block malolactic fermentation this year." So too are dosage levels being (overall) lowered at this family-owned domaine.

Of course, not everyone shares this vision.

"Our current dosage options at Philipponnat include never letting it vary from one vintage to another. Vintage variations are natural in our opinion, and should not be compensated for, which latter concept of regularity is an industrial one," argues Charles Philipponnat.

"We do not envisage releasing non-dosé vintage wines; our vintage cuvées contain 2.5 to 5 gr./l of malic acid. A small dosage is needed to hone off their steely finish. However, we introduced our Brut Nature NV 10 years ago, as some of our customers requested it."

Conversely, Philipponnat argues that the evolution in dosage levels need not be communicated to the wine-drinking public at large. He may have a point; sommeliers and buyers will readily admit that zero dosage brands only appeal to a niche audience. Others argue that the sugar level – even when the label clearly refers to 'Brut Nature' – rarely influences consumer behavior. Even if the sommelier has conducted a lengthy sermon.

"We list a lot of Brut Nature sparkling wines and they sell well. Yet it is not really a question of dosage but of quality and value," says sommelier Matt Cirne.

"Beside aficionados, very few diners/drinkers in my experience really think about dosage. Zero dosage typically meant you got a lean and mean wine, which is by no means the case these days. Champagne is still a romantic beverage – who wants to talk about months of tirage and grams per litre? It sucks all the fun out of it."

The style will always have its detractors; US-based wine writer Terry Theise observes that "tasting zero dosage Champagnes with balance and deliciousness was uncommon."

"Not impossible," he adds. Just unlikely.

"I don't think anyone should care about dosage levels. Too many times in the wine world – and not just in Champagne – we obsess about the trees and are blind to the forest," notes Theise.

Nevertheless, the demand for bottles marketed under a "sugar-free" banner obviously exists. Why else would Billecart-Salmon relabel their Extra Brut as Brut Nature? The wine was produced for years without any dosage. It is only in 2020 that the house decided to communicate that fact.

Let's work on the assumption that in 40 years time, the climatic conditions in Champagne will be far more conducive to producing balanced vintage expressions without the addition of sugar. Two distinct strata would probably emerge: brands which talk up their zero dosage as a promotional USP, and time-honored labels like Cuvée Nicholas Francois, which may well contain no sugar, but are still labeled as Brut.

Only in Champagne could you imagine a region simultaneously promoting its sugar-free styles, while desperately attempting to avoid drawing attention to the dosage levels.

"Even if we produced a zero dosage version of Nicholas Francois from the 2019 harvest, I wouldn't necessarily use Brut Nature on the label," says Roland-Billecart. "Placing too much emphasis on sugar in Champagne could really backfire."

In 2015, a prominent chef de caves remarked that Champagne was nowhere near the point of zero dosage becoming the ideal benchmark for quality. After the 2019 harvest, that situation seems a little closer than anyone could have foreseen five years ago. Certain tabloid concepts remain unlikely, ridiculous even – can we really expect to devour non-binary, vegan T-bone steaks in the 21st Century?

But the idea of sugar-free Krug – whether the label mentions it or not – is far from an implausible reality.

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